I’m Bored with My New Toy

I’m bored with my new toy. I am ready to go back to being an ordinary person without illness & to give up all this navel gazing & self analysis & pain & support from friends, both spiritual & secular & all the immobility. Oh, yeah. Crap. It doesn’t work that way. I have to carry on with being ill. It’s depressing, frankly.

Signing My Will: Impermanence (Part II)

It’s not hard to understand the ordinary operations of impermanence. Things come & go, including people. Human beings are caught in “the relentless grip of time,” as the physicist Sean Carroll writes in The Big Picture.” And various versions of the self wax & wane over the course of an hour, a day, a month, a year, a lifetime. Most human beings most of the time are only minimally aware that they are so gripped by time & change. It’s that big change at the end that eats away at consciousness & that we try to forget about, though of course we can’t really forget about it fully. It’s a mistake to push awareness of mortality into the unconscious, though. It is bound to manifest elsewhere. For much of my life the attempt to suppress thoughts of death emerged in various forms of misbehavior that I’m too modest (or embarrassed) to report here. Suffice it to say I only made myself more miserable.

But my marker on the gameboard has suddenly been advanced by some invisible hand so as to make me acutely aware of my own approaching mortality. Timor mortis contrubat me, wrote the poet William Dunbar at the beginning of the 16th century. The fear of death confounds me. He was ill & thinking of all the fine poets who had preceded him into death; he lists them by name & how they were carried off. He repeats the line in every stanza of a twenty-eight stanza poem, hammering it home & near the end writes, “Sen he has all my brether tane, / He will naught let me live alane.”Dunbar has seen what’s coming & now knows that poetry will not protect him. Perhaps it’s silly to imagine it ever could, but those old Scots bards were said to have magical powers.

Last week I downloaded & completed three legal documents: Last Will & Testament; Healthcare proxy; & Power of Attorney, the latter two giving my wife C. power to act in my name when I cannot, the first instructing her how I would like my megre assets distributed after my death. Working on these documents projected me into the future with a strange, ambiguous affect. On one hand, I was extending my control into the future by telling others what I wanted in a legally enforceable way; but on the other hand I was projecting myself into a future in which only my ghost existed–in these documents. I felt a little like a ghost in constructing them. Once they were completed, of course, they had to be witnessed & signed.

It turns out to be fairly difficult to assemble three witnesses, a notary & the two principals involved. So I set up a meeting at the hospital where I am being treated. The notary (a vice-president in the hospital administration & a very friendly woman about my age) met us & we sat in an alcove of the lobby, signing & grabbing staff to serve as witnesses as necessary. All done in fifteen minutes, during which we made small talk & joked about this & that, knowing but ignoring why I was concluding this business at this particular time. (I was the one in a wheelchair.) I don’t think we were being dishonest. We were strangers, after all, dealing with reality. But I suspect there was just a touch of unease in each of those random witnesses, picked out today to be confronted with a reminder of mortality. A dark wing passing through the sunlight, trailing a shadow. That’s probably why we laughed so much. (They work in a hospital–maybe they don’t need to be reminded.)

Flux & flow are the way of the world, or so the most advanced physics attests, to say nothing of several sophisticated sacred traditions. But this condition is by no means all Whitmanian slip & slide & spiritual smooth sailing. Change–especially the big change at the end–will punch you in the head, knock your feet out from under you, frighten you out of your wits & rub you raw. These days, I live with the big change on intimate terms. My cancer could spread, or decide that the drug we are using against it tastes like candy & go wild. But I actually don’t think in those terms most of the time. Most of the time I talk with friends, or eat a meal, or read, or listen to music, or write this blog, or make poems, or practice Zen. In dreams the shadows will descend in a confused mass sometimes, without resolving into a pattern. A particularly sharp stab of pain, or a new pain anywhere, will produce a cry of anguish or pulse of anxiety

There are those who seek to mitigate the vertigo induced by this kind of radical impermanence by finding some sort of foundation–traditionally, something like God, but taking many other forms, from dharmas1 to selfish genes & blind watchmakers. At this point it would be simple enough to slide off toward a discussion of entropy & the arrow of time, but I’ll just stipulate that the physics confirms a more intuitive insight that Buddhists have been developing for two & a half millennia: Everything is changing all the time, but our perceptual & psychological systems smooth out change & seek patterns that allow us to function in the world.2 Normally, then, we see the world through a series of filters & reducing valves. “Through a glass, darkly,” as Corinthians has it. I’ve said in a recent post (“Reincarnation”) that the universe seems just strange enough to me to allow for some subtle flow of energy out of one’s consciousness at death. But what happens to it or where it goes I would not pretend to know.




Show 2 footnotes

  1. The word dharma comes from the ancient religions of India and is found in Hindu and Jain teachings as well as Buddhist. Its original meaning is something like “natural law.” Its root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support.” In this broad sense, common to many religious traditions, dharma is that which upholds the natural order of the universe. This meaning is part of the Buddhist understanding also. (Source: About.com).
  2. Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception makes this idea central to his thesis about psychedelic drugs.

Am I Fooling Myself?

Sometimes, writing posts here, or sending emails to friends, I feel like a fraud. Am I not just about the perfect Zen student facing a terminal illness? Writing about the birds & moon. I am sometimes afraid, I am sometimes  angry & resentful, but not much of it shows up here. It’s not that those observations are false, but isn’t this all supposed to be messier, more shapeless? Meaner. No doubt those states of mind are coming sometime–but there is no harm in trying to live clearly in the meantime. Nevertheless, I need to be very careful of this Perfect Zen Student persona. So call me out if you see me getting into my robe here on the blog–or anywhere, for that matter.


I have been so calmed & uplifted just now by the visit with my North Country sangha1 this morning. The sangha is one of the “three treasures” of Buddhism, along with the Buddha & the Dharma. It is not impossible, but it is very difficult, to practice Zen outside the context of a sangha.

My friends came just before ten, we sat fifteen minutes of zazen, our dogs being remarkably & unusually quiet, then they went out & stacked our firewood for two hours in the pouring rain. After that samu,2 they came in again & we drank tea together. Doesn’t sound like much, you say? I cannot even begin to express how precious this contact with my fellow Zen students is at this time in my life. At any time, yes, it would be lovely; but given my pain & the lethargy that follows pain, the transformation of mind / heart / body I feel right here right now is almost unbelievable. One is not used to medicines that work so quickly & dramatically & to such good effect.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Sangha (Pali: सङ्घ saṅgha; Sanskrit: संघ saṃgha; Chinese: 僧伽; pinyin: Sēngjiā; Tibetan: དགེ་འདུན་ dge ‘dun) is a word in Pali and Sanskrit meaning “association”, “assembly,” “company” or “community” and most commonly refers in Buddhism to the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks or nuns.
  2. Samu (作務 samu?) refers to physical work that is done with mindfulness as a simple, practical and spiritual practice. Samu might include activities such as cleaning, cooking, gardening, or chopping wood. Samu is a way to bring mindfulness into everyday life as well as to get things done. Samu is popular in Zen monasteries, particularly as a means of maintaining the monastery and as practicing mindfulness.

A Children’s Book . . . Reimagined

I was probably three or four years old when my mother gave me this little book by Margaret Wise Brown, published in 1952, the year after I was born. As a physical object the book is a delight–small, slim, sturdy, the cover boards measure 5 ½″ x 5″ with the width slightly greater than the height, giving the book its appropriately horizontal feel. The illustrations, by Barbara Cooney, in black, white & red, fill the double fold of the open book, with the text always on the right. The illustrations combine a certain naturalism with a tightly controlled whimsy.1




The structure of the book is perhaps the most common in children’s poetry over the last 100 years or so: The poet begins with a formal structure, often, as here, a question & answer pattern, simple rhymes with frequent repetition. In Where Have You Been? the title sets the motif: Someone is asking first one animal & then another the title’s question–Where have you been? The rhetorical payoff or punchline of each stanza is the witty reply of the animal being interrogated.


little cat_sm-1

little mole-sm-1


Little Old Cat
Little Old Cat
Where have you been?
To see this and that
Said the Little Old Cat
That’s where I’ve been.

The typographical convention here is clearly maximum capitalization & minimum punctuation. The lines are broken at grammatical junctures emphasized by rhyme, sometimes identical rhyme, though as it turns out this leaves room for a fair amount of variation from section to section. Thus:

Little Old Fish
Little Old Fish
Where do you swim?
Wherever I wish
Said the Little Old Fish
That’s where I swim.

And one more example, with a slight variation, from Where Have You Been? In this stanza, the question shifts from the empirical to the metaphysical:

Little Old Mouse
Little Old Mouse
Why run down the clock?
To see if the tick
Comes after the tock
I run down the clock.

There is one other stanza in the book that makes use of this kind of grammatical shift. It was that opening to the metaphysical–from where to why–that gave me the idea of writing a few of my own stanzas, using Brown’s poetic structure & rhetoric. Mine are darker.

Little Old Man
Why do you run?
I’m just about done
You can put down the phone
Said the Little Old Man
That’s why I run.

Little Old Rat
Little Old Rat
Where have you been?
I’ve been under my hat
Said the Little Old Rat
That’s where I’ve been.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where were you
When the shit hit the fan?
I was right here with you
When the shit hit the fan.

Little Old Flea
Little Old Flea
What do you see?
I have been out to sea
Said the Little Old Flea
To bring you This Disease.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where have you been?
Why do you flee?
I have been out with the flea
Sailing over the sea.

I don’t make any great claims for this little piece. I’ve always admired the rhetorical stance that adopts children’s language & vocabulary, recasting it for adult purposes.2 Or maybe I felt the need to drop the attitude of The Good Cancer Patient for a little while & simply indulge in some dark play. In fact, I think that is mostly what I have been doing.

I understand the connection between mind & body in cancer treatment, including the need to focus the mind on what is good & useful; no doctor, though, would deny the existence of bleak moods & it seems to me that my poetic exercise incorporates this kind of bleakness into a larger creative act. Poetry, even as the highest art, can have therapeutic value even when that is not the motivation of poet or poem. Used consciously as therapy–though that only dawned on me gradually–making this sort of poem must be an act of healing. This has been a pretty rotten day, actually. I had to spend the time & energy to go to the hospital for another MRI scan, a procedure that, while necessary, does not foster peace of mind. But because I came home & worked on a collage for a while, then rested & ate, then took up this little essay, I feel fairly peaceful, though not without a trickle of anxiety. Well, poetry isn’t magical, is it?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. To my way of thinking, whimsy is always best when tightly controlled.
  2. cf. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths.”

Afternoon Phenomenology

Aware of sunshine, trees, drifting clouds through window on my right. Sitting at computer. Hand on mouse. Doing something or going somewhere online. focused attention. Eyes close. Instantly inside a dream narrative that has the feel of having been going on for a while, though not always (so far as I can tell) the same narrative. Defuse attention. How long? A few seconds to a minute best estimate. Wake up. Dream narrative unavailable to consciousness. I can do this many times over the course of an afternoon hour. The affective color of this experience–conscious & unconscious parts taken together–is neutral to mildly pleasant.

Note: About ten years ago, while taking a prescribed sleep drug, I had a couple of frightening, anxiety-inducing experiences in which I felt myself to be simultaneously asleep & awake. That is, I was doing something in waking life while at the same time doing something else entirely unrelated in a dream or dream-like state of mind. (These experiences took place during the daytime, when the zolpidem was supposed to have cleared my system.) The “double exposures” had a dark, negative affect, even long after they had passed & I was merely recalling them.