August 2008

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The Zimmer Flies

The Great Bird of Love

I want to become a great night bird
Called the Zimmer, grow intricate gears
And tendons, brace my wings on updrafts,
Roll them down with a motion
That lifts me slowly into the stars
To fly above the troubles of the land.
When I soar the moon will shine past
My shoulder and slide through
Streams like a luminous fish.
I want my cry to be huge and melancholy,
The undefiled movement of my wings
To fold and unfold on rising gloom.

People will see my silhouette from
Their windows and be comforted,
Knowing that, though oppressed,
They are cherished and watched over,
Can turn to kiss their children,
Tuck them into their beds and say:
Sleep tight.
No harm tonight,
In starry skies
The Zimmer flies.

–Paul Zimmer

This poem is for David—my personal, powerful, magical Zimmer.

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(detail)

One of the most beguiling things I found while in India was palm leaf “books,” made from thin strips of dried palm leaves and threaded together to fold up accordion-style. Copies of this ancient tradition have been made into tourist souvenirs, but the early versions that we saw in museum collections are stunning. We also watched as monastery monks leafed through their own palm leaf texts while chanting.

Usually dealing with topics of a spiritual nature, these miniature commemorations pack a lot of power in the painstaking detail of the images as well as their compact and concentrated form.


Palm leaf books at Spituk Monastery in Ladakh

So it was with delight that I read Holland Cotter’s New York Times review of a small new show at the Met, “Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Such practical features — size, resilience, portability — help explain why a similar form of palm-leaf art, the illustrated book, was popular in India between the 10th and 13th centuries. And they suggest why such books and their illustrations have survived into the present, while painting in more perishable media has not.

Even these books, though, are rarities. Of the huge numbers that must have once existed, only a fraction remain…Just under three inches high, it’s packed with detail. Each figure is dressed, as if for a hot summer day, in beaded see-through attire. The disciple, her skin a mango gold, smiles up at her savior while he makes a coy gesture with his hands as if playing a game of shadow puppets for her amusement.

All the palm-leaf manuscripts we know of are religious books, transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras. A few sutras were favorites, and by far the most frequently copied one was “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita,” or “Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses.”

Said to have been written — or spoken — by the Buddha himself, it was more likely compiled over centuries. Like many texts generated by an ardently proselytizing faith, it simultaneously had its head in the clouds and was down to earth.

On the one hand, the sutra defines wisdom as a transcendent consciousness, a state of ego-erasure so profound that the reality of emptiness as the ultimate fact of life becomes clear. To reach this understanding was the goal of monastic practice. It was to gain Buddha-level knowledge, which was the knowledge you needed to gain before you could do the one thing worth doing, which was to help others in need.

Balanced against this high-minded goal was another. “Perfection of Wisdom” also implied that a smart devotee might use the sutra as a kind of existential survival kit, a magical talisman. With its help you could ward off illness, accidents and other material harm. And you could acquire things: money, a spouse, an extra cow, healthy children, and lots of them.

So palm-leaf manuscripts, like most art, had multiple uses. They circulated spiritual information. They functioned as protective charms. They served as religious offerings, gifts from which karmic returns were expected. And they became objects of worship.

Prajnaparamita was not only a form of wisdom, but also a female deity who had roots in ancient goddess worship and was identified with the Buddha’s mother. The sutra itself explains that if the Buddha is kind enough to give you a book like this, you should “revere, adore and worship it with flowers, incense, unguents, parasols, banners, bells, flags and rows of lamps all around.”

A sheet from the palm-leaf book “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita” (“Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses”), includes a tiny painting of a female disciple playing a game with a bodhisattva, a being who embodies perfect wisdom and love. The religious books, which originated in northeastern India, are transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras.

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In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

–Mary Oliver

Poetry seems to do more to capture my state of mind than my own words…Sometimes I feel that the silence of a particular landscape comes home inside you. That is how Ladakh feels to me now. Words will return, eventually, but for the time being I am relying on others to speak for me.

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Someone You Have Seen Before

It was a night for listening to Corelli, Geminiani
Or Manfredini. The tables had been set with beautiful white cloths
And bouquets of flowers. Outside the big glass windows
The rain drilled mercilessly into the rock garden, which made light
Of the whole thing. Both business and entertainment waited
With parted lips, because so much new way of being
With one’s emotion and keeping track of it at the same time
Had been silently expressed. Even the waiters were happy.

It was an example of how much one can grow lustily
Without fracturing the shell of coziness that surrounds us,
And all things as well. “We spend so much time
Trying to convince ourselves we’re happy that we don’t recognize
The real thing when it comes along,” the Disney official said.
He’s got a point, you must admit. If we followed nature
More closely we’d realize that, I mean really getting your face pressed
Into the muck and indecision of it. Then it’s as if
We grew out of our happiness, not the other way round, as is
Commonly supposed. We’re the characters in its novel,
And anybody who doubts that need only look out of the window
Past his or her own reflection, to the bright, patterned,
Timeless unofficial truth hanging around out there,
Waiting for the signal to be galvanized into a crowd scene,
Joyful or threatening, it doesn’t matter, so long as we know
It’s inside, here with us.

But people do change in life,
As well as in fiction. And what happens then? Is it because we think nobody’s
Listening that one day it comes, the urge to delete yourself,
“Take yourself out,” as they say? As though this could matter
Even to the concerned ones who crowd around,
Expressions of lightness and peace on their faces,
In which you play no part perhaps, but even so
Their happiness is for you, it’s your birthday, and even
When the balloons and fudge get tangled with extraneous
Good wishes from everywhere, it is, I believe, made to order
For your questioning stance and that impression
Left on the inside of your pleasure by some bivalve
With which you have been identified. Sure,
Nothing is ever perfect enough, but that’s part of how it fits
The mixed bag
Of leftover character traits that used to be part of you
Before the change was performed
And of all those acquaintances bursting with vigor and
Humor, as though they wanted to call you down
Into closeness, not for being close, or snug, or whatever,
But because they believe you were made to fit this unique
And valuable situation whose lid is rising, totally
Into the morning-glory-colored future. Remember, don’t throw away
The quadrant of unused situations just because they’re here:
They may not always be, and you haven’t finished looking
Through them all yet. So much that happens happens in small ways
That someone was going to get around to tabulate, and then never did,
Yet it all bespeaks freshness, clarity and an even motor drive
To coax us out of sleep and start us wondering what the new round
Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake
This time. And the form, the precepts, are yours to dispose of as you will,
As the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse
On a distant hill, or else lets the whole picture slip into foam.

–John Ashbery

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I’ve spent the last two days curating through the oh, so many photographs I took in India. (Death by digital photography is a legitimate peril, especially for excessive types like me.)

For those of you who can rapid fire through images and would be interested in seeing more, I’ve created a site on Shutterfly.

Viewer beware! Even this edited selection has a lot to digest, from sacred monastery interiors to the 7th century carved caves to the explosion of color on every street. This is a nation addicted to color and sensory expression, that’s for sure. I fit right in.

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood–
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is–
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

–Theodore Roethke

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Dak Thok Monastery Festival

On the long flight back home from India, I kept searching for a pivot point—that spot that could bring coherence and comprehension to so many disparate experiences. I’ve never had an adventure quite like this one, one where so many extremes were in play. We came upon oppressive heat as well as intense cold, explosive color set against backdrops of barrenness, timeless traditions and technological adaptability (even the man sweeping the street has a cell phone), a national driving style that requires both aggression and cooperation, the full range of human functions carried out on the street while the womenfolk elegantly preserve their modest draping, never giving public exposure to a shoulder or a knee. This is a country where the sensory and psychological overload is of a completely different order. Everything catches the eye and/or the imagination, which is why I returned home with 2500 digital images.


Trekking in Ladakh

I felt that timelessness in the hand of nature as well as the hand of man. The mountains of Ladakh are empty and vast, encircled in every direction by successive arcs of snow capped peaks. The air is crystalline and rare at the high mountain passes. And the monasteries clinging precariously to the crags of cliffs harbor yet another form of landscape—the endless expanse of our own interiority. The mystery of that inner landscape comes to the surface in those richly textured rooms regardless of spiritual orientation. The sound of monks chanting early in the morning is a clarion call for everyone, not just Tibetan Buddhists.


Spituk Monastery


David at Spituk Monastery


Hemis Monastery

There are several places I would like to write about in more detail. The 11th century monastery at Alchi. The 6th and 7th century carved caves and paintings at Ellora and Ajanta. The museum at the Hemis monastery. The hermitage at Gotsang. Maybe later. Right now I’m in limbo, neither here nor there, with a mind that is neither sharp nor dull. Perhaps it is my own micro version of the extremes and paradoxes that seem to define the entire nation of India—a sprawling, larger than life, outrageous, in your face, exquisite country.


Painting at Ajanta

Note: The poetry I had queued up for posting while I was gone did not appear. Sorry for that glitch. Those poems will appear over the next few weeks along with more content that is India-centric.


Shey Monastery

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I leave today for India. We’ll be in the southern region for a week before heading up to Ladakh. After a trek through the Himalayas, we will visit the Ajanta Buddhist temple caves in Maharashtra.

I have been trekking with this group of friends for over 15 years, but this is the first time I have been able to convince my partner David to come along. He’s only joining us for the first half of the trip, but it’s a huge step and I’m so happy he agreed. His attachment to the concept of daily showers has been a major impediment to his participation in these “off road” adventures in the past, so we plan to introduce him to the glories of being dirty and smelly with careful moderation.

Someone asked me, “Is this a pilgrimage?” I suppose the correct answer to that question is, perhaps.

I will be gone for most of August and will be spending my time outside the reaches of the cybernet. While I am gone, I have queued up a slew of my favorite poems to appear every other day. I will return to writing in real time on August 25.

This parting wisdom is compliments of Whiskey River, my favorite wisdom drinking hole…

Just live that life. It doesn’t matter whether it is life or hell, life of the hungry ghost, life of the animal, it’s okay; just live that life, see. And as a matter of fact there is no other way. Where you stand, where you are, that’s what your life is right there, regardless of how painful it is or how enjoyable it is. That’s what it is.

–Taizan Maezumi

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For Strong Women

A strong woman is a woman who is straining
A strong woman is a woman standing
on tiptoe and lifting a barbell
while trying to sing “Boris Godunov.”
A strong woman is a woman at work
cleaning out the cesspool of the ages,
and while she shovels, she talks about
how she doesn’t mind crying, it opens
the ducts of the eyes, and throwing up
develops the stomach muscles, and
she goes on shoveling with tears in her nose.
A strong woman is a woman in whose head
a voice is repeating, I told you so,
ugly, bad girl, bitch, nag, shrill, witch,
ballbuster, nobody will ever love you back,
why aren’t you feminine, why aren’t
you soft, why aren’t you quiet, why aren’t you dead?
A strong woman is a woman determined
to do somehing others are determined
not be done. She is pushing up on the bottom
of a lead coffin lid. She is trying to raise
a manhole cover with her head, she is trying
to butt her way through a steel wall.
Her head hurts. People waiting for the hole
to be made say, hurry, you’re so strong.
A strong woman is a woman bleeding
inside. A strong woman is a woman making
herself strong every morning while her teeth
loosen and her back throbs. Every baby,
a tooth, midwives used to say, and now
every battle a scar. A strong woman
is a mass of scar tissue that aches
when it rains and wounds that bleed
when you bump them and memories that get up
in the night and pace in boots to and fro.
A strong woman is a woman who craves love
like oxygen or she turns blue choking.
A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
suckling her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.
What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other. Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.

–Marge Piercy

Like many women, I have had a problematic and complex relationship with what it means to be strong. My ancestors were Mormon pioneers, and they kept journals full of strong woman stories. Your children die. Your shoes fall apart. Your handcart fails you. Your health deteriorates. (“It’s only a flesh wound!” in Monty Python terminology…) No matter what happens, the edict remains the same: Keep walking. And the second law is like unto it: Do not whine.

Growing up, my sister Rebecca had a nickname for me: Mister Barlow. I was a very physical kid, with a headstrong contrarian nature. I hated the rank sexism of the task assigned in our large family, so of course I refused the girly jobs inside the house in favor of the heavy lifting outdoors. That proclivity became a habit, and the habit became a personality trait that I had to unlearn later in life, slowly.

Thank you Marge Piercy for such a crazyass poem, one with a message I know all too well.

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