Small Demon
Aug 022012
 

I have continued my practice of sitting zazen while here in Vietnam, though I only seem to be able to sit once a day, in the evening, rather than my usual twice a day, morning & evening practice. And I’ve been listening to dharma talks by MRO teachers. When I return to the US, just before the semester begins, I will spend a week at the monastery for the August sesshin*. Lat night I dreamed I had arrived for sesshin, which for some reason was beginning with a large public gathering in a tall building quite unlike the monastery. “Well, I’m new at this,” I told myself, “just go with the flow.” But there wasn’t much flow & people did not seem to know what was going on. I decided to just go to the zendo & wait, but I couldn’t find it. I knew it was on the ground floor, but all the elevators were behaving strangely & the staircases seemed to have been designed by M.C. Escher. Classic anxiety dream, of course, though with an unusual object.

M.C. Escher Staircases

I never did find the zendo & woke up feeling frustrated, but also with the notion in my head that “just sitting” is much harder than one might suppose. Just getting to the place where one can sit is no simple matter!

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*Characterized by silence and deep introspection, sesshin is recommended to anyone who is sincerely interested in experiencing intensive Zen training. We wake up each day before dawn to begin a schedule that includes 7 to 10 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent meals in the zendo (oryoki), work practice. . .

Feb 212011
 

. . . has been drawing my attention lately. Beginning with Hesse’s Steppenwolf, I’ve made a chain of association: Sartre’s Nausea, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge, Woolf’s Orlando, and finally, Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Call them novels of the self in history. I hadn’t read Steppenwolf since I was eighteen, when I remember absolutely and distinctly not getting it, except that it ends with a drug trip. Reading Hesse’s novel again now, about a man trying to survive turning fifty, rang true in every sense for me — philosophically and psychologically — as I try to survive turning sixty in a few months. (Sixty is the new fifty — perhaps literally, given extended life expectancies.) Like poor Harry Haller, I seem to be going through a process of reevaluating everything — imaginatively reliving parts of my past in order to make them come out right, recasting my own fiction. I dreamed a couple of weeks ago that I had decided to give up my teaching job in order to “do my MFA over again” because “I didn’t get it right the first time.” And last night I had a dream — satire, I hope! — in which I gave my my university professorship in order to go to work in industry selling frozen food, with Dana Gioia as my boss! Well, he did and does sell frozen food, first literally and now figuratively. There is that wonderful scene near the end of Steppenwolf in which Pablo shows Harry how to rearrange the pieces of his personality on a chessboard, playing with alternatives that nevertheless remain thematically related. That’s what the last couple of years of my life feel like. A lot like Harry Haller.

So now I have begun the Rilke novel, which I started years ago but never finished — I know this because I can see my marks in the margins — but not much of it registered with me. “The main thing is to live,” writes Brigge near the beginning. Yes.

 Posted by at 10:09 pm
May 192010
 

We knew a little in advance — a comet was going to slam into the earth, or come so close it would suck the atmosphere away. C. & I decided to spend our remaining time with a friend & begin walking to her house. During our walk — through a neighborhood that, in retrospect, reminds me of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a freezing chemical rain began to fall, coating everything with rime. We kept walking but thought this might be the end of things, but the rain slows & then stops & we keep walking. I see a child, almost an infant, standing alone on a street corner. There was a moment of looking around and wondering what we should do, but then I went over and picked the baby up and began carrying him with us to our friend’s house. “At least he won’t die alone,” C. said. We shared (silently) a sense of doing the right thing even when it made no difference. When we arrived at our friend’s house she was pregnant and bleeding from the nose. Her abusive boyfriend had hit her in the face, but he was still outside. The chemical rain began to fall again & we discovered that the infant we had rescued was dead. We sat in our friend’s living room, on the floor, a candle in front of us, waiting.

May 142010
 

Just before waking this morning, I dreamed I had moved back into the old house and furnished my childhood room with the turret  as a studio. My first creative writing teacher Tom Brush was there and suggested that I rent the place out when I wasn’t in residence — apparently I still had a teaching job and would only be in Santa Cruz part of the year. I was saying I’d want to be very exclusive and limit the rentals to people I knew and trusted. I could tell Tom was a little envious. This is another dream about repossessing my childhood, I think.

May 092010
 

The soundtrack for this post is Dylan’s “Series of Dreams.” Dreams are out of fashion in psychiatry these days, but I’m still a Freudian at heart and I pay attention to my dreams when I remember them. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” writes Yeats, quoting “an old play,” a sentiment then echoed by Delmore Schwartz in what is probably his single most successful piece of writing, unless you figure that he “wrote” Saul Bellow’s Humbolt’s Gift. Talk about intertextuality!

First dream: I’m an adult in my childhood home, having returned to live there with C. We have our usual crew of scruffy, noisy dogs with us and we’ve settled in — been in residence maybe two or three days. The house is a big Victorian affair with a balcony and a turret & a sweeping sun porch, etc. C & I are standing on the porch when an older woman, elegantly dressed, with an upswept gray coif, approaches across the driveway. Picture from last year sent to me by a childhood friend She’s a neighbor & is leading a little schnauzer — as elegant as she is — on a lead. As she comes up to us, our terriers start barking & leaping around. The woman begins to greet us, but is clearly bothered by our unkempt, delinquent dogs. She raises her eyebrows, throws her head back nose-in-the-air style, & says, “Completely lacking in class & breeding.”  Up to this point I’ve just been interested in meeting this neighbor, but at this point in the dream I become enraged & begin shouting at her to “Get off my property, get off my god damned property! ”

Second Dream: I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, except that it is located where Ottawa ought to be; that is, close to where I actually live. I’m with some other people who have never been there before & I am explaining how to get around, where to go. It is the day before I have to leave for home & I am saying to one of the people I’m with, “It always breaks my heart to have to leave this place. I breaks my heart.” Then I’m by myself in a part of town I’m not familiar with and I stop at a food stall to order bun cha (grilled pork & noodles), but either because of my poor Vietnamese or the perversity of stall owner, along with the pork and noodles I receive a grilled songbird and a frog. I decide to eat the pork but not the two more exotic offerings.

I see both these dreams as taking control dreams. One of the main themes of my dream life over the years has been loss of control — lost in big cities, cars that won’t steer correctly or in which the brakes don’t work, elevators that go sideways, buildings that double back on themselves just when you think you’re getting to the exit, etc. In the first dream here, I return to the scene of my childhood anguish and helplessness, move in, and defend my turf against the sort of people my parents desperately wanted to be. I woke from that one feeling proud of myself. In the second dream, set in HCMC, not Hanoi, which is my “home town” in Vietnam, I’m getting along well despite some uncertainty. The business with the food suggests to me that I don’t have to accept every aspect of Vietnamese culture & that I can love the place without having to embrace everything about it. (I actually have been served whole grilled songbirds in HCMC, but never frogs.)

And speaking of dreams & Freud & all that, I love this response by Phillip Levine to his then teacher Robert Lowell, who had complained about Levine’s use of Freud, accusing him of lifting it from Auden. “Mr. Lowell,” Levine said, “I’m Jewish. I steal Freud directly from Freud; he was one of ours.” Well, I’m not Jewish, but I found Freud early and under the influence of my teacher Larry Frank made him my own. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents — these have been maps to the world for me over the decades. Freud has been, in Lowell’s own words, one of my “Masters of Joy.”