Pushing that Stone, Lost in our Bones

It’s an easy thing to speak of the pain of suicide, and then to ask that we all love one another and try not to do those things that cause such psychic pain to other humans that they off themselves. I personally wish it could happen: that suddenly, tomorrow morning, Saturday, there would be no more bad daddies nor psychotic angry mommies, traumatized children who grow into traumatized adults who then, sometimes but of course not always, traumatize other adults. I do so wish good feelings alone — a love of life, a love of non-harming — could reduce the suicide rate in our country.

Yet this phenomenon has complicated causes and facilitators (looking at you, NRA) and as honorable and magnificent a thing it might be for us to all remember (when we are not working ourselves to death or struggling otherwise to make a living in the world) to love one another and fail to be mortally rude to one another, that won’t affect the suicide rate very much. Don’t contribute to another’s self-despair. Yes. Good advice. But it’s so much more complicated than heartfelt wishes and articulate, compassionate desires.

Remember the myth of impertinent King Sisyphus? At one point he pissed off some deity because he slyly tricked and chained Thanatos, god of death, and thus nobody on earth could die and Ares, god of war, grew supremely pissed. Presently King Sisyphus was condemned to pushing the same stinkin’ boulder up the same stinkin’ hill and having it fall back down again every stinkin’ day — and is this much different from our diurnal jobs, or even our daily habits? Same thing, same boulder, running out the eternal clock every day, our routines as immutable as cliches.

Why wouldn’t th1024px-Nekyia_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_1494_n2e thought of suicide occur to King Sisyphus, or to any of us? Whose quotidian existence, considered from every angle, has any more meaning or purpose than we ourselves invent for ourselves?

Remember when a nasty, despicable human being committed suicide, and folks posted memes along this line: “Suicide: sure sign of Guilt”?

Those who have known well a suicide or those who have attempted suicide wince at such quick moral assessments, similar to those used in those centuries when suicides were not given church funerals and the deceased often interred only at a crossroads — they were unfit for holy ground. The blame. People who were not strong enough to resist the urge to kill themselves were, in the eyes of the law and of the church, guilty.snake

Extremely public suicides, such as, most recently _________________ [fill in the blank, according to the now in which you read this essay], momentarily distract the public’s attention toward the problem, which is of such proportions as to be almost epidemic in certain age segments. You can look up these disconcerting numbers yourself at the CDC: suicide is almost three times as prevalent as homicide, and the easy access to firearms helps make the “successful” suicide rate among men somewhat higher than among women.

So, yes, yes, treat others as well as yourself with lovingkindness.

Work with your anger if you know you have anger issues.

Seek treatment for complex PTSD.

Divorce yourself from a screen and have a conversation of meaning, sometime, with a friend. No bullshit small-talk. Big talk. Let it go on and on. Get angry and reconcile. Shout. Whisper. It helps to be walking.

(c) 2019 Thomas N. Dennis

Pharmacological Weather Forecast

for Thomas Pynchon

It’s just a low serotonin sorta day
The kind you wish would
temporally vanish & just go away
The kind you want to pass like
A rainstorm’s dripping ass
It’s just
a low serotonin sorta day.

You don’t watch the news
Cause that hurts your molars
You can’t walk outside cause
You’re scared of strollers a-and
When they walk by
You know what they say?

“Lord, Lord — it’s just
another low serotonin day.”

[suggestions on guitar chord changes welcome]

Terrible True Things

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“You know, you know . . . I really thought I’d miss him much more than I do. Is that a terrible thing to say? Can I smoke in here?”
“True things are often terrible to say.”
“You goddam head people! You weary me. My husband’s been incinerated what, five weeks, I’m up to my neck in – and – “
“I apologize. I’m sorry. I live in my head, as you know. Skull house.
“So sick of you people with your stupid books and your stupid writing. Watch a movie why don’t you?”
You know how variable grief can be, in so many ways. It can be deferred. One person may outwardly appear to be unaffected, ungrievingly soldiering on as they say, and that causes odd, uh, situations.
“All situations are odd situations these last weeks. I have found myself being rude to some of the most sanguine people. Saying nasty things to them and then smiling so they know (well, some of them know) that I am only making a slightly harsh joke.”
You figure they’ll forget because you are the grieving widow. The as-yet-still-grieving widow.
“Right. But guess what: I don’t miss his ass one bit. Not the slightest. Every day, something happens to make me realize, zong! that he was bringing me down daily. Daily. Lazy useless human male who sat around reading and writing and playing bad guitar.”
Uh –
“Thought I’d completely cleaned the place of everything Nash, but no, no I still find coilies, the pubic hairs in the bathroom – not mine. The little tiny bits of shaved beard he never cleaned up no matter how much I begged. Nash’s personal habits were – “
Please. Okay? You are making your points. Excessive details will only bring out the queasy.
“He spent so much of these last few years sitting on his ass in a chair writing words nobody, anywhere, wants to read. Least of all, me. So much more practical work needed to be done. [sob] Work on the gutters. The siding. A lot of steam-cleaning for the deck. But no. Laughing last, as usual. Like I thought he was when he fell over.”
…so…Nash just keeled?
“He had leaned his head over – I thought he was thinking about what I had just said, which, of course, I forget – and he had his fingers in his hair and then just tumbled out of the rocker onto the deck and – “
You never know exactly what to do for a minute.
“You don’t! You don’t know what . . . . But I knew he was dying and you know it pissed me off even that much more, like – “
Like, You’re dying to make me angry.”
Precisely. Thank you for ruining my day by dying on me at an early age. So I was saying, this is what they say I was saying when they got to the house . . .
What?
” ‘Don’t you die you son of a fathermucker, don’t you die on me, Nash.’ But he did. Had already. Staring up. A little brown drool at his mouth. The ultimate non-answer out of thousands of others through the years when you asked him a really tough question.
© 2019 Thomas N. Dennis

Western Travels

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Check-in

Fortune smiles on the kind-hearted intrepid traveler. His plane rolls into the arrival gate not at 8:40 p.m. but at 7:40, which is important only because today is 4/20 eve, 2019, and he thinks his hotel is within walking distance of a dispensary, which appears by all maps to be the last one before the main gates of this state’s airport. On this weed holiday, it might be busy and the one solid thing he knows about dispensaries is: they close at 10 p.m. For once, this slow guy hurries. The cabbie has a story to tell about papal misdoings in South America, but he just can’t listen. Did they just drive through the parking lot twice? He checks the sky – still light. He checks his watch. Warm western air out the window.

He checks into his Chanquita Inn suite, washes his face once and races pretty quickly back downstairs toward the near dispensary with the word “native” in its title. Having had no experience whatever in all this – this is not how he procures his smoke –  he has no idea what to expect of this adventure, and that’s exactly why he enjoys walking out of his motel room — ah, the  chunky chip moon — and walking down to where he can see the packed parking lot of the store; lights everywhere; people are dropping people off and zipping away. It’s warm and smells like the food from the restaurant across the street. You are in the west, he tells himself. This is west. First place where you can legally procure your greens, right there, boys. There’s plenty in town, but this, this is the first place.

It’s a building that may in the past have been a small roadside restaurant or a cellphone store. A crowd of about two dozen folks, none of them happy-looking. He is a lightly smiling and unhurried man, bearded and dressed appropriate to the temperatures. His accent would immediately give him away, so he feigns a British accent. It is not his day to hurry. At the counter he show his ID and the affable guy there says, “It may be 35 minutes or so, and the door gets locked at 9.”

“Got it, thank you mate, I guess I will wait.”

His name is written on a list as he meanders away to the least populated spot he can find: it’s in the back up against a black mirror. He wonders if he is the oldest person here—it’s close. One lady might beat him, she in all black and with ringlets of silver.

The whole place has a wonderfully strong funky, skunky smell about it. A fragrance gardeners might enjoy. Someone’s making a nice salad. Now, it was the odor of illegality now nasal legal: the unincarceration of the organ of smell itself, he thought.

Normal, also, like leather smells at a rodeo, or ozone in a greenhouse.

On the other side of the walls of the waiting room, through a shiny black door that opens and closes a lot, was the area where several bud-tenders were ready to help everyone find whatever they seek.

The room for waiting for pot is one big semi-bifurcated room, with half a wall down one side and doors in that wall, where everyone is expected to stand around as we await our opportunity to purchase clean and tested marijuana products. I read in a book for a short while.

There is not a whole lot of conversation, though there is some, light and frothy, barely audible in the silence. At one point, music could be heard through a room that opens into another part of the shop. Maybe Kool and the Gang? Hard to tell.

Customers come in clots through the front door, IDs in hand, not all good IDs—”I can’t take this, man, it’s been glued together”–and exiting/entering the main display rooms, which cannot be seen from almost anywhere in the waiting room. Predictably, many are on their phones. Others go outside, but the 9 deadline is coming up soon.

At one point, between answered phone calls, the greeter starts talking to us about what he fears is happening in the parking lot outside the front door. “Ohhhh no. My buddy better not be doin’ what I am thinkin’ he is doin’.” He starts out from behind the counter, but then something changes outside. “Hey y’all,” he mutters to us, rubbing his moustache,  returning to his spot. “Please don’t never do that, okay. No smokin’ in front of the store. Not cool. Thank you so much. And thank you for your patience.”

Amiable mumbled grumbles from the twenty or so of us left.

He wonders if it’s like this in every shop in town, or if this is a function of the green holiday. (Future spoiler: it isn’t. They’re all a bit different from one another.)

His name is called and he goes into the other room where there is another line and he moves then fairly quickly through this new orderly line (the waiting room was a disorderly line, none of them truly knew who was up next) and is eventually shown, by friendly and helpful folks, everything he might need or want regarding cannabis.

He chooses the sativa pre-roll for work later and the Indica gummies for sleep-aids, with the chocolate rectangle for experimentation purposes while he rides a bus over Monarch pass—that’s later tomorrow, after he wakes and wanders downtown. They use a fancy sack, like something from Victoria’s Secret, to pack up his purchases. Exiting the storefront he hears the main desk guy calls out in his strong voice: “Howard, party of 2, Howard?”

 

 Union Station Tableau

Next morning I Ubered downtown and then meandered down the 16th Street Mall to where the crowd was puffing away quite illegally in Civic Center park. Got some good hummus and walked back to Union Station, dodging the Segway explosion with ease.

Now I am to wait an uncomfortable hour for a bus to a valley town in Colorado. I find the waiting room underground at Union Station and sit down for a while, trying to do traveler’s meditation. It may work or it may not. Fun to try. I could walk a few blocks to do something but by the time I got there, it would be time to walk back.

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The somewhat disjointed guy in the old army jacket and fuzzy hat starts speaking unusual, almost indecipherable words and stands on one foot, whirling a little in the middle of the wide concourse, hopping, addressing no one in this his unique language. He’s not addressing the thin man near the stairwell.  Nor the frightened couple over there, nor the lady with the grey-blonde hair on her phone beside me – not me, either.

It’s time for the train. We all glance around. The guy sleeping on the floor, with the big white spotted hound beside him — he’s gone now. He woke and left without anyone noticing, leaving a tiny spill of some kind behind.

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This guy’s got a lot of energy. His coat flies out as he performs. You have to wonder what the face of his demons look like, right? I felt the same way once watching a good friend who had drunk way too much champagne and was laughing above the voluble in a purposefully maniacal way for way too long, where everybody’s smiling and wincing.

Now, though, he has accosts the lady and, outside my bad hearing, asks if he can use her phone.

No, she says, you can’t use my phone, I’m sorry, I just can’t —

There is more talk.

No, I don’t need that.

More discussion.

She dials a number. I hear the rings go on and on.

No answer, she tells him. The conversation is taking place over her shoulder.

She speaks in an understandably unnatural way:

I’m calling for Dan, who says he is–he is your brother and that he is in the Denver bus station, Union Station…and he needs some help. Okay thanks — bye.

She looks at me. I don’t usually consciously, like, know what is expressed by my face, but I know there was a sympathetic look on my face at that moment.

I see that she has a slightly bulbous nose, like Helen Mirren’s nose in many ways. She give a slight shake of her head and puts her phone away.

We are all of us fiddlers with our phones, aren’t we.

She gets the phone out in a bit after the guy has whirled off with a Thank you!Thankyou!Thankyou! bouncing and staggering purposefully from one spot to another along the walls of the concourse, his words sometimes a repetitive murmur, sometimes loud upshouts. He is alternatively curled up and then uncurls, his face stretched upward to the ceiling lights. The green jacket flies out; his eyes appear to be unopened and he bumps into an affixed garbage can. Others dodge him.

The older man who has been waiting with his wife comes up to stand near me:

Where are the cops when you need them?

Nobody says anything. The bus arrives.

It’s empty and we pile on. The driver stands before us, a youth of perhaps thirty, his blondish red beard sparse but long and his eyes green-blue and clear.

I’m Gus, your driver today. This is my first trip and I hope you enjoy it. The weather looks great. If you need anything, please ask me.

Most of the passengers exit the bus along the route, which is only a few hours. The lady with the grey-blonde hair and the barely bulbous nose rides to the terminus: down the valleys so flat at first but soon ascending to an area where we pass through a collection of remote villages like Fairplay and Salida, up and over the snowy divide, passing through remote little towns that often appear to be nothing more than the random collection of compounds, though a few may have been farms. Knowing nothing about this part of the world, what may I judge?

In the flat town of Buena Vista, near the western edge of town, the bus made a stop, pulling up to a Feed store parking lot situated beside nothing much and the Buena Vista trailer park. Of course one wonders, in the brief wait, what it is like living there, with such an insanely beautiful view of the Collegiate mountains brightly and bluely imposed on one’s day-to-day functioning. Maybe you work in the big prison. (I was later told that the trailers house out-of-state workers brought in to work specifically in that prison near BV, as the town is referred to by those who live there.)

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A restaurant over there, maybe open at this time of day, maybe not.  Two dirt roads where dogs of indeterminable size  are yapping away. And Mount Harvard, glorious in bright sun whereas here was clouded.

The scary beauty of the pass passage – there are some extreme grades —  has me wondering about Gus’s training, its length and extravagance. Did he once navigate the entire dangerous strip this hefty vehicle a few times with another, more experienced driver, who certifies Gus at the bottom with a “Whew!” and one beer only before on to Salida and the Denver terminal to the north. Would he have ingested, as had I, a tasty THC chocolate bar?

I stare at the tawny, unknowable rear of Gus’s head for good luck. You can ask me why “good” but I can’t truly answer. My mood, it’s good. I check in with myself every now and then. Gus is a super driver.  He lets others pass him on the way up, just past Maysville, and then we seem to reach some high mountain plateau where we drive for a long, long time, switching sides of the road with a torrent of water that had to be icy before we hit another stretch of uphill curviness that eventually ends in Monarch pass. I put my jacket on, as do others on the bus.

I guess it would not be wise to try to converse with the driver in such a situation; certainly rules are made for vapid passengers like me who make even the slightest twitch toward wanting to speak to him.

I want to start a conversation by asking my co-passenger about the guy she’d made the phone call for, but I decide I need not disturb this anonymous woman’s peace a second time today.

Today may not be my luckiest day. I still have to cross the Great Divide. After that? start packing up my friend for the drive back East.

 

Delay & Wonder in Antonito

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Did I snore?

No.

After driving along one or two extremely straight, unpolluted roads (mostly US 285) for innumerable miles we find ourselves momentarily delayed in this one-road, windy town named Antonito, which squats anomalously on the high plains of far southern Colorado. Elevation is above 8,000, population’s 802 and the sun seems very brilliant for late April. The cat seems unhappy and wants out of the car.

If he weren’t dead, I’d swear Sam Shepard was sitting in the car next to us at the Food Market.

On my phone, I find three places in town to rent a room.

At the Steam Hotel a sign sits askew (with its pencil) behind a dusty front window: “Check with Green Genie to book a room” and an arrow pointing toward the side of the building, where sits a nice, small mom’n’mom cannabis business run by two grey-eyed women wearing black t-shirts which may be uniforms…no, the Green Genie would have green shirts.

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I go up to the desk and sniff a redolent bin of buds being held forth for me but, “I’m here about a room at the Steam Train Hotel. Maybe later!” She brings up a single blue  fingernail and pulls out her phone. We’re outside and she lights a cigarette. After a bit of talk, she turns back to me.

“I can’t get hold of the lady who does the bookings. She’s not in,” I am told. “But, uh, are you  staying in town for a little while?”

“Yeah, a little,” I say. “Call us if you get hold of her and there’s a green room.” I brag on the hotel a little and say I really want to stay tonight if I can. She gives me a patient look but at least she doesn’t ask where I’m from; I guess my accent is in check. “It will be green.”

We’re just a few kms from the New Mexico line, the line past which possession of my pre-rolled joints and gummies is illegal. If this hotel deal works out, we can stay here and smoke here as well, and check out the little town before moving on tomorrow morning. Our destination is far to the east.

But no one calls. I meander off for a bit to check out a hotel called the Palace, but a rather short and quite ancient man answers the door and says they haven’t rented rooms in decades. I thank him and look back to see him looking out upon the sunny sidewalk, almost as if there were an expected line of people like myself asking about the defunct Palace.

A funny dog with twisted white hair moves down the street ahead of me and pauses at the light with me. It leaves me when I reach the car.

“I checked the weather, and you know what? snow is forecast for this little town for tonight.”

“Wow, you wouldn’t know it now.”

“But it is. I don’t want to drive in snow — and the mountains — ”

“You’re right. No snow driving. No movement on the room anyway. We’ll cross the border down the road . . .”

Silence down the road a few miles. No good music can be located.

“So – you can tell me. Did I snore?”

“No snores.”

On the last curve out of town we see the third hotel, but — snow — we drive on to the sign that says “Welcome to New Mexico,” at which point we goes back into Colorado a few clicks, next to the sign that says “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” and stand looking solemnly up into the sky if a car passes, trying to fire up that last joint — but today the wind seems strong enough to pull small rocks off the road and combustion cannot happen. It won’t light. We give up and place the unsmoked joint on the sign’s edge. The last of an eighth is poured out into the wind; we nibble up the remaining edible goodies. Clean, pure and ready for the border. Borders. As a Coloradan, the driver knows how important this is — the tag is a cop magnet. Also, one cannot smoke in one’s car in Colorado — odor alone is enough for a driving while stoned ticket. Wise smokers accept the inconvenience.

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On. New Mexico starts to distinguish itself radically from southern plains Colorado.

As we near Santa Fe, the phone rings: the woman from the Steam Train Hotel has become available, and a room as well, if we still want it.

“No, I guess not, but can I ask…is it snowing there yet?” The mind ponders what might have happened but did not at the Steam Train Hotel and the Green Genie Shop.

“Yet? Nope, no snow.” She sounds as if she is laughing. 

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Razorback Profile

They were three states from home and hit the spot in Arkansas where everything starts looking precisely, horribly just like everything else back east. Billboards, like some crude visual craze, are back. They were nowhere to be seen in Colorado and much of New Mexico. Powerlines and telephone lines are now above ground. Even the massive quaint wind-engines of the Texas panhandle dwindled away and then were seen no more. Brutely-colored New Mexico rocks turned to flatland, sage, and then the larger sagebrush clumps disappeared all the streets alongside Interstate 40 began their switch into the ubiquitous businesses we see in all southern U.S. states and many of the northern ones as well.

The travelers were looking forward now, even on their phones, and even with the best timing, it appeared they would arrive at dark.

Shit! Nothing to do but drive drive drive.

But they escaped a lengthy bank of murderous fog just past the Oklahoma line and then got into a clickin’ road rhythm. It’s like you know when to stop for gas or for the other person to pee, and the music starts to fit the land you drive through. If you miss a turn, the detour doesn’t hurt much. By the time they passed the next state, they’d be crossing the Big Muddy, and home a mere three hours away.

One of the passengers briefly listened to an Audible book recording of “Life,” by Keith Richards, and the story he heard was a picaresque account of the Stones’ arrest and release in Arkansas in 1975 near Fordyce, Arkansas. It made him smile.

Coming into Little Rock, the tractor-trailer rigs began to multiply wildly. Everywhere, behind, in front, to either side of this tiny car, were churning truck tires and silver trailers full of American stuff. They got pinned, stuck behind a pipe-truck which had slowed suddenly, and in the swing they made around him, to pass — aimed their way — were the three Arkansas police-cars lined up in the interstate split. Can’t see ’em til you pass ’em.

One night-blue cruiser pulls out, attracted by and now following — of this the travelers are certain — the Colorado tag on their car. It weaves ahead to look at them: young woman driver, cat, Caucasian middle-aged male passenger in a Phish t-shirt . . . the bastard weaves back to check their tag, then pulls carefully back behind them and flick on the lights and a blip of siren.

They pulled over on a long exit ramp and waited. No dash-whacking, a breathless silence.

“I knew it. I fucking knew it. Profiled by the Colorado tag! fuck Jesus’s tits.”

The Colorado tag means that this mesomorphic looking fucker walking toward them hopes to get his quota done before the end of the month, which is in, let’s see, two days. Uh oh.

[As it happens, it has been exactly 364 days since he was arrested, a mile from his house, for possession of pot and DUI, back in Alabama one wild April evening not unlike this one: breezy, smelly with blooming flowers, and cars zipping past. Sunday evening the year before. As the cast unfolded, lawyered up, he was allowed to enter diversion court and undergo color-coded testing — to also keep his license — and had been a drug court graduate since January, so technically he guessed he was pretty clean.]

Cop leans his face into the passenger side:

“I uh stopped you for following too close behind those tractor trailers back there.”

“Yeah, they were kind of boxing us in, it seemed.”

“There was a problem uh with your tag, too? Is it new?”

“Yes, it sure is . . .”

“. . . couldn’t find it in the system…”

“Could you both get your IDs out for me and ma’am, you come with me.”

He sat in the car watching in the outside mirror as she went back to stand beside the cop car’s passenger window. She stood in the passenger window and seemed to be speaking an awful lot. Too much. Who knew. She looked like me trying to explain to my mother some recent misdeed.

In fact, she was unpausing in her speech. We all make mistakes when we overtalk – he was a prime example, and struggled daily to keep his mouth closed. He was fascinated as he watched, breathing a bit shallowly for a moment imagining just how the anxiety-level drives were cutting loose both in her and in him, fear was here, as present as a passenger. I  have never seen her quite like this, ever. Breathe. Both nostrils at once: slow . . .

The voice shifts harsh. “Get out of the car, sir.” He got out and was patted down. “Any weapons?”

“No.”

“Sir, please go stand over there while I’m searching the car . . .” Tanned, crew-cut, muscular guy. Probably has a boat he takes out on weekends, coupla kids.

He moves as directed and keeps on waiting, hand-tips in pocket-tips. Several other police vehicles pass them on the exit ramp and this (he thinks) is a very good sign. The cop seems to do a pretty perfunctory check under this seats, in the trunk, and then he returns to his cruiser.

Their IDs are returned and they are sent on their way with a verbal warning about traveling too close. Heartrates hove toward normal.

“Call Colorado and see what they say about that tag.”

A phone call. “Colorado says there’s nothing whatever wrong with my tag, it is in the system.”

“Tag-profiled.”

“Yep.”

 

Slowly, only gradually beginning to feel less fear and less violated, the trip continues toward its terminus in the solar plexus, the obese belly, the plumped out aged omentum of the Dixie beast, that place where state legislators pass abortion heartbeat bills alongside rapist-protection laws and try to incarcerate as many of their citizens as they can each year for possession of the same weed decriminalized/legalized by about half the country. Why would you come back to such a benighted place? Relatives? Beauty of the land, where left unspoiled by economic development? Could such an uncompassionate, misogynistic system, so well-managed by powerful dotards, have even the tiniest hope of ever – ever – evolving in the slightest way?

 

© 2019 Thomas N. Dennis

At the Bus Station, Denver

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I am waiting an uncomfortable hour for a bus to a valley town in Colorado.

The somewhat disjointed guy in the old army jacket and fuzzy hat starts speaking almost indecipherable words and  stands on one foot, whirling a little in the middle of the wide concourse, addressing no one.

Not the frightened couple over there, not the lady with the grey-blonde hair on her phone beside me, not me. We glance around. The guy sleeping on the floor, with the big white spotted hound beside him — he’s gone now. He woke and left without anyone noticing, leaving a tiny spill of some kind behind.

This guy’s got a lot of energy. His coat flies out as he performs. You have to wonder what the face of his demons look like, right? I felt the same way once watching a good friend who had drunk way too much champagne and was laughing above the voluble in a purposefully maniacal way for way too many riffs. Smiles and winces.

Now, though, he has accosts the lady and, outside my bad hearing, asks if he can use her phone.

No, she says, you can’t use my phone, I’m sorry, I just can’t —

There is more talk.

No, I don’t need that.

More discussion.

She dials a number. I hear the rings go on and on.

No answer, she tells him. The conversation is taking place over her shoulder.

She speaks in an understandably unnatural way:

I’m calling for Dan, who says he is–he is your brother and that he is in the Denver bus station, Union Station…and he needs some help. Okay thanks — bye.

She looks at me. I don’t usually consciously, like, know what is expressed by my face, but I know there was a sympathetic look on my face at that moment.

I see that she has a slightly bulbous nose, like Helen Mirren’s nose in many ways. She give a slight shake of her head and puts her phone away.

We are all of us fiddlers with our phones, aren’t we.

She gets the phone out in a bit after the guy has whirled off with a Thank you!Thankyou!Thankyou! bouncing and staggering purposefully from one spot to another along the walls of the concourse, his words sometimes a repetitive murmur, sometimes loud upshouts. He is alternatively curled up and then uncurls, his face stretched upward to the ceiling lights. The green jacket flies out; his eyes appear to be unopened and he bumps into an affixed garbage can. Others dodge him.

The older man who has been waiting with his wife comes up to stand near me:

Where are the cops when you need them?

Nobody says anything. The bus arrives.

It’s empty and we pile on. The driver stands before us, a youth of perhaps thirty, his blondish red beard sparse but long and his eyes green-blue and clear.

I’m Gus, your driver today. This is my first trip and I hope you enjoy it. The weather looks great. If you need anything, please ask me.

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Most of the passengers exit the bus along the route, which is only a few hours. The lady with the grey-blonde hair and the barely bulbous nose rides to the terminus: down the valleys so flat at first but soon ascending to an area where we pass through a collection of remote villages like Fairplay and Salida, up and over the snowy divide, passing through remote little towns that often appear to be nothing more than the random collection of compounds. Perhaps some were farms.

In Buena Vista the bus made a stop near a trailer park, and I wondered what it would be like there, with such an insanely beautiful view of the mountains superimposed on the life of a dilapidated space like this. I was later told that the trailers function of housing for out of state workers brought in to work specifically in Buena Vista.

The scary beauty of the pass passage inevitably has me wondering about Gus’s training, its length and extravagance. Or does he just drive a huge vehicle a few times with another, more experienced driver, who certifies Gus. Would he have ingested a THC chocolate bar, as had I? I stare at the back of Gus’s head for good luck.

I want to start a conversation by asking my co-passenger about the guy she’d made the phone call for, but I decide I need not disturb this anonymous woman’s peace a second time today.

Today may not be my luckiest day.

colorado3

 

excerpt from “Beautiful Illusions”

[buy the book here: Beautiful Illusions ]monkeys

“I think I’ve figured out why I’m so needy, why I bounce from woman to woman to woman and why nothing ever takes. Venwick, whose name you should remember from your Abnormal Psychology classes, was one of those cruel animal experimenters in the Forties and Fifties. What he did was take baby rhesus monkeys, some of them anyway, and remove them from their mothers almost as soon as they were born.”

“So they didn’t have a chance to bond.” My friend lit her cigarette. Not really interested, but I was ebullient this morning.

“Right.”

“So your mother was a female rhesus monkey.” A shiver of a smile in this.

“No, but I was taken from her right after birth. My older sister took care of me the first few months of my life – I don’t really know how long. She had severe post-partum depression. They gave her shock treatments.” Carole flinched, wrinkled her brow.

“Only thing she’s ever said about it directly to me was that it had something to do with my father’s reaction to my being born. I was the only kid they had together, and I think I was supposed to cement their already unglued relationship. But anyway . . . .”

The snow tapped at our window, sounding almost like a creak. The wind roared and then died.

“I think I remember how this goes. It’s coming back to me now. The unhappy baby rhesus monkeys’ serotonin levels plunged, right? Unhappy baby monkeys: Mommy’s gone and here comes a snake! You know I read somewhere that the beginning of all human language might derive from primates trying to tell each other, ‘Watch out, there’s a snake!’

“What is more: these inquisitions of our cadres of obligingly cruel scientists went on for a long, long time. They took the long view. They took their notes, made their physiological measurements as these deprived primates aged into primate mid-life—guess what happened to the serotonin levels, already low? They remain low, researchers with the baby rhesus monkeys learned, long after the primate has grown up. The baby rhesus monkeys missed their mommies their whole lives, were depressed on into monkey middle age!”

Carole said, “Well, if I understand what you’re getting at correctly, you have a pretty gloomy psychological prognosis, am I right?”

I pulled the curtain back. It looked like it was about to get dark outside, though it couldn’t have been any later than ten-thirty.

I went over to my chair, to the desk she’d found alongside the road for me.

“I better get some of this stuff written down before I forget it.”

“Wait a minute, now. So does this mean you’ll miss your mother all your life, seek constant medication to raise your low serotonin, and seek women replacements for the gnawing absence that you’ve felt ever since you were a baby rhe – I mean, a baby?”

I put one hand upon my head, started scratching my abdomen with the other, and rolled my lips back as far as I could over my teeth.

“Nash!!”

[buy the book here: Beautiful Illusions ]

Mountain Journal (Travel, 2004)

mountains1

Take-off

Presently flying quite high over states like Arkansas or Missouri. Tired-eyed. Wish I were not alone. Starving, I crave the peanuts and pretzel packets they’ll bring us in a moment. I’ll be in Denver, driving, in just a little while. I eat my two packets and stare jealously at others who simply hold but do not eat. Mississippi snakes through below, a blue-clad snake of water, Memphis nearby, and West Memphis, across the bridge. Boats make tiny white marks in the deep lapis lazuli of the snake. Sand-bars visible, and much of the land around the Big Muddy seems to have been touched by its wet hand. Some turbulence as we pass through a giant thunderstorm, but no rain and lightning that I could discern. Again I see the round formations in the farmland “heart of America” section – last time they were covered with snow, however. I am still wondering what man-made activity creates them – it looks like, from 7 miles high, a massive intelligence test for pre-schoolers. Round goes here: square goes there. 

The Art of Meandering

Sidling, casting about, wandering: these are all synonyms for meandering. What do they bring to mind? These people I see outside my motel room near downtown Denver, shaky-looking old grizzle-headed guys, bland-face latinos, the pair of Oriental girls who were ahead of me as I walked to find coffee, early this Sunday morning – is it possible they too are meandering, like me? I would like to think so.

Val’s friend Elizabeth made her special burritos for us last night – yummy, and the odor of the cooking as we waited (did I doze?) not half the pleasure. Afterwards we went to the pool here and had quite a nice time. 51 years old, almost, and I had never been in a hot tub – can you believe it? Is this really possible? Slept well, perhaps from 10:30 – 3:30 and then again until around 6. I never sleep much, no matter where I am.

denver

The Mystery of Stillness

So I am up and meandering, looking for good coffee. Walking directly into a very bright, unhazed orb of sun. In the West, walking East. When I first walked out into the utter solitude of the street (Colfax near intersection with Park), something greatly reminiscent of New Orleans – 28-1/2 years ago – bubbled out of the base of my brain, there where the memories gather and slither and recombine. The two Oriental girls turned abruptly and walked directly back toward me. Perhaps they’d reached some liminal point . . . at which meandering reins itself back into a specific direction of time and space. I find the good coffee (Starbucks) and return to my room where I get a message from E. saying Val’s grumpy and won’t get up to go to breakfast, so she and I meet at the vegetarian breakfast spot called Watercourse (I walk the 8 blocks or so from the motel, despite the car).

It’s a good talk. E’s someone you can open up to easily, and I appreciate that a lot out here so far from home and from the volubility of strangers.

A waitress has a bright orange t-shirt on which has written on its back, in garbled letters, something like this:

 

HT E

MY

STE

RY

O

F

STI

LL    NESS

I ask the cute little thing if she’s into yoga – “the mystery of stillness” — and she says she is, but that the line comes from an e.e. cummings poem and was made for her by a friend.

Watching people, I realize just how much like Flaubert I am. I read in Botton’s book The Art of Travel  a long quote from the great author of Mme Bovary, written during his trip to Egypt, in which he exults at the great thrill of simply watching people – in his case a woman on a boat going down the Nile, among other instances – and wondering about their lives, the quality and particulars of their core existence.

 

We go out to eat, near dusk, at a place called Racine’s, and wait for an outdoor table. E’s sister and brother-in-law are also with us – good people. Val and E. may be headed to Hawaii soon to stay with E.’s mother, since life is getting difficult for them here.  My eggplant parmesan is just a bit too much for me to eat. I make a mental note to never again order more than I can eat, and to make Monday a day of eating less food. I’m ready to hit the sack fairly early, but for some reason I toss and turn and cannot sleep. I watch people walking by on Colfax, outdoors. Finally I do manage to get to sleep, near midnight. Sleeping hours for vacationers.

mountains3

Time plus Poetry equals Love

Up not so early, no breakfast, and I drive to Val’s apartment pretty early in the morning and only buzz the buzzer once. Why wake the child? She’s still somewhat depressed, it seems, by losing her job and by their impending financial straits. I leave the car and walk circuitously toward downtown Denver, ostensibly the intersection of Broadway and Colfax. I take some pictures of statues and of stumblebums and soon find my way to the Sixteenth Street Mall, which, of all malls I’ve ever been in, I decide I like the most. There are all sorts of stores, of course, and venders of various substances – conzuela de fer? – and hot dogs and sunglasses – but it occurs to me as a sort of economic insight that, given the money worries of the girls, I should not spend money foolishly and extravagantly but should really go easy on that and make sure I can give them some cash before I go, to make their lives easier.

I have a couple of cups of coffee, walk until my feet are beginning to tire, and cannot fathom what the “Writers Square” section of the mall has to do with literature or writing. Again, I am infatuated with simply watching people, imagining what their lives might be like or might not be like.

After this jaunt, I go back to Val’s apartment and she’s up, so we go to a place called Jerusalem for lunch. I have a yoghurt drink – unusual – and hummus with pita bread. We meander in search of music, talk, come back and pick up my UPS package containing my camera and sleeping bag (essential for the trip to Shambhala). Back at the room, I read and rest and dip into the spa and pool before Val and I again meet to play some pool at a very manly bar. The pictures on the wall would make John Wayne very ashamed. E. comes by after leaving her workplace. We decide we’ll go to see The Manchurian Candidate and do. I have a warm soft pretzel covered with garlic, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my whole life. Streep and Washington are excellent, and the Candidate guy looks just like his predecessor in the original John Frankenheimer production.

Deep dreamless sleep.

Four Yoginis and Two San Franciscans on a Mission

I can’t get hold of the girls all day, so I am on my own. (It turns out later that Val is not feeling well.) I decide on a very light breakfast, one biscuit and hashbrowns, at the Cafe El Senor Sol here at the Ramada. The waitress seems amazed, and keeps asking me if this is all I want. She has a look that is almost offended, as though she had made me eggs and bacon with green chili topping and I refused to eat it. “That’s all?” – “Yes,” I say and then try to explain but she just gives me a scornful slanting look as she walks away with the coffee pot. I spit on you. You do not like my food. I don’t need your stinkin’ appetite! 

I probably nipped back into that outdoor spa before I went back downtown.

I found a one-hour parking spot in front of the Art Museum but wound up losing a lot of that time talking to a girl sitting in a chair in front of a bus whose side is emblazoned VOTE in cursive lettering. “Are you registered to vote?” “Oh sure. Um, can I take your picture? I’m real nervous about asking people to let me take their picture…y’know, I take shots of landscapes and stuff but –” “Sure, are you a photographer?” “Somewhat, I guess. These will probably wind up on my web site; let me give you a card…”

She sighs, scratches her dark henna hair as I find my little Mere Fiction card. “Just as long as I don’t show up naked.”

We get into a discussion about what this is all about. They are traveling across the country on a route that matches somewhat the cursive-lettered word, attempting to get people registered to vote in the upcoming election. I digress into a story I read recently about the brother of a black man who was murdered by the local KKK thuggery in Mississippi during the Evil Years; this brother, a troubled man himself, had begun a trip somewhat like the one these SF girls were on, though he focused mostly on minority voters in impoverished and rural areas of the middle and deep South. I promise to check their site, and I fill out a questionnaire which will probably wind up on their site as a scanned image. Note my glyphic handwriting.

An excellent museum, but I shall have to visit the other floors later. The brass Shiva Nataraja (dancing Shiva) took up much of my time, as did four quaint and intriguing yoginis, one of whom had a boar’s head. The dates were about 900 CE and the informative brochure mentioned that they figured into the movement in India at that time of “enlightenment via the body” (i.e., Tantra). Among the works of Buddhist art were several remarkable Quan Yin statues that I had seen as photographs in books, but never up close and in person. They sat in comfortable postures and looked over the top of my head.

The One You Can’t Escape

After a day of flooding, with the temperatures beginning to drop, I am nearly ready to head north, and west, to Red Feather Lakes and Shambhala Mountain Center.

Yesterday, a window-cleaning employee of the Ramada Inn narrowly missed the singular trauma of seeing me doing my morning yoga in a, well, semi-nude state. Weather was extreme yesterday, pouring most all day and negating my plans for perambulation – I used the time well, however. Sitting in an outdoor spa in the pouring rain is a very pleasant experience. Breakfast also at the Denver Diner with my beloved daughter, who’s sick with the asthmatic bronchitis she suffered from so very often as a child. She talked to her mother back in Alabama and discovered that her brother finally got his driver’s license, after a couple of tries. It scares us both a little. Like our talk about working and how the 9-to-5 grind is bad for human beings, such considerations soften my vacational mood and reminds me that I haven’t escaped from anything or anyone, and when I return to Alabama nothing within other people will have changed very much, even if, perhaps, my travel has lightly changed me. It goes without saying (yet I say it anyway) that we cannot escape from ourselves, no matter how nor where we travel. But it is time for me to put away such discursive thoughts, to pack and leave the city.

shambhala6 (2012_08_18 15_01_40 utc)

I arrived at Shambhala Mountain Center around 1 p.m. after about 2 and ½ hours of driving, half of which was interstate and pretty unremarkable, aside from a near-miss with death as I merged back onto the highway after stopping for gas. At one point I took a detour and made a circle, going through the small town of Laporte, but the sublimity of the scenery made it worth seeing twice. Rumpled, grassy slopes to my right, stony hills to my left – bright orange cuts of earth towering up on my right and then a valley vista of grassland off to my left. I stopped several times to try to capture these scenes with my camera; I hope I succeeded. I reached a log-cabin restaurant called “The Forks” and paused to buy a map of the locale as well as a cappuccino (my last for a while). Assuming the cutoff to Shambhala was close, I started driving again, but the road went on and on and on. I turned on my Phish CD, rolled the windows down, and felt an inner set of goose-bumps as I drove. No-one really knows where I am and I don’t even know very well myself. The cracked-up cloudy sky descends as I ascend into high fog … the elevation shoots up … behind me for the longest way was a Frito-Lay truck, but by the time I discovered the Shambhala sign I had lost even him. (What a marvelous route he must have!)

Ghostly muddy dirt mountain road

High up and you’re all alone now

Aren’t you? Aren’t we?

In the fog one can see nothing

In the fog the self is not even a non-self

I try to focus my camera on a

Poignant chiaroscuro but

It will not focus –

— there’s nothing to focus on – 

Contemplating the Dung of Small Creatures

I arrive, however, get registered, and am directed to my tent. I am in my tent now, somewhat cold, sitting in dandasana as I type. The rain has picked up again; water pours down the side of my tent. I wonder if it might even snow up here? I wonder just how cold I am going to be tonight when I put on all the clothes I can and curl up in my sleeping bag? It’s a deluge, 3:30 p.m. Thursday August 19 2004, just like in Denver yesterday evening. The registrar, a slim girl named Jennifer who used a yoga ball for a chair, said people would soon be lined up out her office trailer to sign up for the Sharon Salzberg deal this weekend. Retreat and renewal people will also be allowed to listen to her talks, however. There is yoga at 6:15 a.m., 10 a.m., and around 5:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday (I plan to partake fully). In the soggy meadows now are a zillion types of wildflowers, where last February the only flowers were ice blooms. A large tent has been erected as a meal tent, and I understand I will be bathing in a bathhouse with bunches of other people.

As I get settled in, rain begins. It does not stop. It goes on and on and on, and I feel for the 180 or so people who have to stand in the rain and wait at various spots; I stay in my tent, reading by daylight as long as I can, and then I just drowse. It’s quite enjoyable, except for the fact that I can’t seem to get my head situated. At one point a mountain chipmunk, snazzily striped, creeps up to my doorstep. I watch, not quite asleep. I notice as I stare desultorily around the room that the floor is almost covered – as is the rough plywood table – with miniscule black footballs: mouse droppings? Chipmunk dung? The answer awaits a visual confirmation. The tent is large enough to move around in comfortably, floorless yet erected atop the wooden platforms I noticed last February when I was here. A spongy ochre piece of mattress lies naked atop a wooden bedstead; atop this I have laid, first, my yoga mat, and then my yoga blanket, and then the sleeping bag. The deluge seems interminable. Where does the water go up here? At 6 I rouse myself from my komodo-dragonesque torpor and mosey down toward the big tent where food is served. Noble silence is not observed, except by me and a few others. I guess they didn’t get the word. Unlike last February, when there were but a few tables of diners (mostly workers), this big tent is filled with people. The magnificent salad I recall from before begins to work its nutritive magic on me; the noodles + tomato & veggie sauce is okay, but not a culinary delight. I could’ve survived simply on the salad.

The rain has finally stopped. I take a walk almost to the Stupa but turn around before arriving. I simply needed the movement. I lie down after closing up all the windows in case of further rain, but sleep does not come easily. Something happened (while I tossed and turned and tried various devices for pillows) that illustrates the best trait I have: adaptability.

Other campers, walking behind my tent enroute to the Red Feather camping area – there are a large number of these tents erected – were carrying flashlights to help them along their walk, and these lights cast a variety of different shadows across the ceiling of my tent, at first annoying me but then, as I gave in to it, intriguing me. Who knew pine needles could cast such a wide variety of magic-lantern shows? My mind drifted back to the days when, as a teenager, my parents took us and most of the nearby relatives to Wind Creek State Park, near Alexander City, Alabama. The same thing had happened there. No sound aside from feet crunching pine straw or dirt: only the bounce and swirl of flashlights or lanterns casting shifty shapes. Eventually I slept, dreamless and deep, to wake just before dawn in frigid temperatures with a neck that needed to be unstiffened by yoga.

Mighty Eructations of Wind in the Middle of the Night

I gather my toiletries, dress for the intense cold that already has my ears and nose icy, and trudge down the trail toward the bathhouse. There’s not much going on at this time of morning. Do I hear a garbage can turn over? Must be in my head. An odd musky smell? Sweet. Yesterday’s depleted rainclouds seem to have bunched up at the eastern horizon, like gray socks shoved down into the bottom of a bed.

Very quickly, and alone, with much shivering, I take my shower and re-dress. The 6:15 a.m. yoga class will be starting soon.

Sunrise seems to be stalling. Above the horizon, southerly of Marga point’s dark profile, the palest yellow light provides enough discrimination (viveka) for me to see, just next to the Sacred Studies Hall, three mule deer having an early repast. I think they are eating the things I saw people planting there yesterday.

Large black nostrils puff out some air. Ears like mules, big black eyes. I stand stock still, afraid they’ll run away when they see me, but I need not worry: the larger of the two does looks directly at me as if wondering What are you doing here?  They too practice noble silence. The elegant creatures turn to check on the younger (or at least much smaller) animal a little further away. I am tempted to walk toward them – would they lick the salt from my skin, as does my dog Karma? – yet I dare not spook them. I feel very fortunate, and share my fortune with a man who’s walking toward me with his bathing stuff: “Three deer right over that fence there.”

The class is held in a rather small Community Shrine room, which last February was the lunchroom for the schoolkids who were staying at Shambhala during the same time I stayed. Crimson zafus are piled in a corner. The style is one I hadn’t heard of: Mysore. Basically this comes down to the idea that we do what we want, and the instructor comes around and makes suggestions or adjustments. I work myself into a sweat, and the room is not overheated. As is my habit, I don’t pay too much attention to the other yogis, but for the sake of writing this account, I did see that there quite a few older folks, only one or two other guys (why?), and several younger girls who seem to know exactly what they are doing and, I suspect, are yoga teachers themselves.

The breakfast gong rings. “Is that what that means?” says a woman who reminds me of Jane Trechsel, a yoga teacher back in my hometown. “I thought somebody dropped a pan.” People have now gotten the word on the noble silence aspect of meals, and there is no talk of any kind. I can tell some people feel odd with it, but most of us enjoy it. I don’t talk much during meals anyway, and, since I am not the extraverted type, I ordinarily don’t speak unless someone first speaks to me. All types of people are represented – I wonder to what extent this is a snapshot of the faces of western Buddhism: men who look like accountants, sad-eyed ladies who seem to be ill, dread-locked young dudes and a guy in black silk Viet Cong pajama pants — couples and also some children. There are a few kidlings here, and I suppose it is perverse of me but I appreciated, somehow, their raucous violation of the adult silence rules.

“Mommy! Bird!”

Of course, who could resist telling Mommy when the brazen magpie, elegant in his tri-colored feathers (blue, black, white), leaps into the dining hall and perches atop the divider separating we Retreat and Renewal tables from the Sharon Salzberg tables. Now the magpie, impatient for us to finish I suppose, breaks the noble silence rule also with a little burbling pipe-like song. The kids babble on – and how proud I am of the mother and father for not attempting to stop them! – they shriek and giggle and try to catch the bird when it drops down to the floor for a bit of rice. Dozens and dozens of adults sit all around her, quiet as chipmunks. I wonder if the child will remember this experience…

“Mommy remember when none of all those people talked and that big black and blue bird came in and – and – ”

At the Gift Shop, which is only open for brief periods of time, it was too crowded to look for books, though there were some good ones and I may get Feuerstein’s Tantra book yet. More importantly, I saw a broom leaning against the wall and later came back to temporarily borrow it. My tent needed sweeping out in the worst way. Now I don’t have to tread on tiny field-mouse turds.

Before one knows it, there’s another yoga class at 10, taught by Zett, who’s also coordinating this weekend’s events and seems a bit frazzled. I dedicate my practice (it’s a good one, held in a different place called the Red Feather lodge, not far from my tent) to her and to my wife, who I am beginning to miss. I try to call before lunch but the phone’s not working. Lunch and more magpie-and-child show. I think of taking a hike…nah. Storm clouds loom off to the west, and when the splatterings come I head for my tent and wind up taking a long nap after catching up on my writing and reading. By suppertime, the rain has finally ceased – isn’t this the sort of pattern we find in, say, Florida? – and I revel afterwards in the Restorative practice. Then to sit in the foyer where Sharon Salzberg’s giving her talk, making notes:

A friend of hers said giving the Dalai Lama a peace prize was like giving Mother Nature an art award. Ms Salzberg didn’t say whether she’d met the Venerable Lama, but she did say that when he was talking to you he seemed to give you his full attention, “he doesn’t act like he’s waiting to get to the next person.”

She told a story involving plane travel that I really didn’t need to hear. It seems that Sylvia Boorstein, a friend of hers (and author in her own right) was flying from Chicago to San Francisco; after the plane took off, however, the pilot said there was a problem with the hydraulic system and they’d have to return to O’Hare rather than try to make it over the Rockies with the problem. Boorstein started her metta practice, using whatever words she uses but focusing on her closest family members first and going right down to a great grand-kid. Every five minutes or so, the pilot would say, we’re 35 minutes from Chicago…”25 minutes from Chicago…” and so forth, and Boorstein did the “familial” metta practice all the way up until that last five minutes. At that point, she related to Sharon Salzberg, Boorstein was figuring, well, in five minutes I’ll either be dead or I’ll be alive. But the remarkable thing was, her meditation changed: she could no longer limit it just to the family and people she knew well – she could not help but extend it to the entire world. The plane landed just fine, and Boorstein went on to California.

(I began to stare at a tile on the floor in the foyer. It seemed to be as expressive as a Japanese print…I could discern a tawny roundish mountain, a flat place, the sun a dark brown spot up above…slopes. Perhaps this is a sign that I need to go to bed. 8:45, 9:45 CDT.)

She also touched on the four brahmaviharas: metta (sometimes translated as love but without, S. says, all the goofy sentimental and romantic layers we westerners put on the word – really friendliness is closer to the meaning); lovingkindness; sympathetic joy (joy in another’s happiness – and isn’t it interesting, she said, how we might always be happy if we actually too joy in others’ happiness – even when we ourselves might have no happiness directly in our lives); and equanimity (about which more in tonight’s talk).

I hope to be a bit closer and be able to give some visualization about tonight’s talk.

I came back to my tent, snuggled into my sleeping bag, read for a very long time, and managed to get to sleep fairly quickly. But  around 2:22 a.m., I was awakened.

First there were the winds. They wound through the upper atmosphere like space-ships passing over – a mighty whooooooooooooooshing noise that seemed to go on for a great while. And then a sudden silence, the “other shoe waiting to drop” silence. Just when the mind is used to that silence – and tonight my tent is totally dark, windows all zipped up – here would come another, sounding like the mighty eructations of some fast-moving Supreme Being. The pines around me seemed about ready to uproot. Alabamians will know these sort of gusts as, according to our meteorological presenters, “straight-line winds.”

Okay. That died out, or at least I got used to it enough to drift back to sleep. But around 2:50 (watch checked with tiny flashlight), there’s another sound outside. I know others heard it because I heard the tell-tale zipping up or down of tents. It sounded like a small, perhaps immature carnivore playing with an empty plastic bottle of water. (I had several of those, but I had put them all up…hadn’t I?)

I could see, against the utterly lightless interior of my tent’s roof, a vision of a bear goofing around with a plastic bottle, trying to get into a Coke perhaps that some thoughtless person had left out. Or perhaps it was a mountain lion? All around, after that one zipping of the tent, was silence…except for the intermittent sound of the beast trying to get purchase with its rough paws – claws in those paws could easily tear this tent apart – in my hyper aesthetic state, like some Poe villain, I thought I felt something run across the top of my pillow. I flicked on my flashlight – nothing. It might’ve been the pillow – my rolled-up yoga mat – moving. It might’ve been the flashlight itself, rolling. It might indeed have been a harmless small striped chipmunk, like the dozens I’d seen in just a day or so. I kept the flashlight on for a little while and I did not sleep for a little while – but the light seemed to have mysteriously quelled the happenings outside the tent. Or – or! Was all of this connected?

I did not get a lot of sleep, but when 5:30 a.m. came, I was ready to get out of the tent and into the cold bathhouse again. Several rabbits, no predawn deer this morning, but after the yoga class, which generated a lot of heat, it was so packed, as I walked across a meadow, I saw a deer come bounding down toward the main building. I took a picture but was probably too far away.

It’s my last full day here, and my mind has begun to think about departure, although my body seems still to be enjoying what has turned out to be a yoga intensive. Three classes Friday, a total of about 5 ½ hours – three classes today. I must leave early in the morning, in order not to run late driving to Denver and to the rental car counter.

Have I missed the Internet? Have I missed the news for three days? Noooo.

Have I missed the people of my life, my son and daughter and wife? Not to mention the poor hound who mourns for me on a driveway in hot August Alabama. Yes, yes, and yes.

At the morning class, a teacher mentions something that sinks in only as I lie in savasana. “We all have reptiles, birds, other creatures in our evolutionary pre-history . . . ” Yes! Thus these asanas, so many named for animals or with the movement of the animals in mind – Shiva of course being known in some quarters as “Lord of the Animals” – are perhaps connected with our being on a far deeper level than we know. When we do eagle pose, is that evolutionary ornithological bird within flying or perching? When we move into lizard, are cells, deep down in the base of the brain, resonating?

The day passes calmly. A storm drifts in, drops its load, moves on out. I try to catch up on lost sleep, I read, I rest my legs. Sitting in front of the dining tent, I notice a hummingbird busily sucking up the energy it will soon need as it migrates over the Gulf of Mexico – a little vacationer itself, yes? Like my mind in sitting practice, it leaps from flower to flower and pokes its little beak down, incessant, almost as though (I have walked up to within three feet of the shimmering jade bundle) it was afraid the flowers would not be there tomorrow. Draw in the energy now! Can’t wait! Now! This blossom, that one, the blue, the red, the pink. Like me, the tiny bird does not know the names of the flowers. It reminds me a lot of my mind when I am sitting.

There seems to be a different set of people at each yoga class, I being the only recidivist. At the evening yoga session, my last, I thank Zett the teacher for her classes and ask if anyone there might know the name of the sweet-smelling, ubiquitous grass or shrub that grows throughout the meadows in the area. No one knows, but it might be sage. It is a pale hunter green and the bushes are shaped like cedars, only much smaller. I pinched some up and the odor was so lush it was hard not to take a bite or at least smear it over my face. As Zett gives me a ride back to dinner – I admit it, my leg muscles are too weary for the walk today – we talk about Erich Schiffmann. “He’s my hero,” she jokes; I tell her about the Monteagle workshop each spring and how much I learned his book. I also remember to borrow paper and jot down some new things I’ve learned from her classes – yogic souvenirs for my classmates at home.

“Look over there.” She points out two people in parkas standing within 40 feet of two large deer. I tell her about my experiences with the deer in the early morning hours, how I was afraid to move.

“This land has been under the hand of ahimsa for thirty years or so now. All the creatures here are utterly tame.” I inwardly hope they don’t wander into the hunting areas. “You could probably have walked right up to them, perhaps even fed them something.” 

mountains2

Eyes of the Bear, Are They Upon Me?

Eating my last meal at Shambhala, in silence although inwardly I wonder about the lives of the people around me – the kid with the dreadlocks pushed into a Jamaican cap (didn’t I see him in February?); the tall, elegant dark-haired woman in sweats; the various types of couples.

It strikes me that when one’s food is as nutritious and tasty as this, one doesn’t need to eat all that much of it. I look down at my belly, the one that makes my sarvangasana so difficult, and wonder if I’ve lost weight or it just feels like it. (Editor’s note: it was true.)

Before Ms Salzberg gives her last talk, a spokeswoman goes up to the mike in the Sacred Studies Hall and makes this chilling announcement:

“If you are near downtown [this is what they call the area where the dining tent is erected, where finance offices are located and a couple of other buildings] around 5: 30 in the morning – ” my ears perk up: that’s where I am when I go to the bathhouse before early yoga – “please remember to make some noise. Hum, or whistle, or click sticks together.”

Uh oh. “A mother bear has been seen trying to maraud the dining tent…”

Due to the noble silence, there are no mumbles of discontent, no verbal expressions of dismay, but I can feel them.

“Now, she’s not a grizzly bear. She almost tore the back of the tent apart trying to get away from a person who saw her here once before. But just be aware if you’re out around that time of morning. Thanks.”

Yeah, thanks! I feel in hindsight the eyes of the bear on me that first morning. So that was that odor? My own fur ruffles up in numinous awe and yes a little fear. Ursa mater eyeballing me as I strolled to the bath-house, freezing, staring up at the line of the horizon, still half-asleep. Perhaps I just didn’t smell good enough to eat.

Direct from the Hindsight Meditation Society  

I take a blue zafu in the western part of the hall and await Ms. Salzberg’s arrival. People are getting comfortable; one girl actually lies down on the mats. When she arrives and settles into her chair, I am astonished to realize she looks a lot like what Val, my daughter, might look like in mid-life: short, straight, dark-brown hair, just like Val; same endomorphic body-type, and also the same intelligence striated with a dry sense of humor.

Her talk centers on the four brahmaviharas, which, loosely translated, means: best (or expansive) home. She also discusses the “far” enemies and “near” enemies of the brahmaviharas. Sipping from a cup from time to time, Ms Salzberg smiles wryly but rarely laughs as she tells the stories that have her audience roaring. The stories are excellent, illustrative in often indirect ways of the concepts she’s trying to get across to us: love and love’s far enemy of aversion, the near one of attachment; compassion and cruelty, with the near enemy of pity or grief (“when we are so debilitated by the suffering we see that we are useless”); sympathetic joy, whose far enemy is envy or jealousy and whose near enemy is comparison; and equanimity – reactivity being the far and indifference being the near enemies.

She tells a lot of stories, but one of the best is about the time the IMS, newly formed, asked certain people to come give talks, and, surprise, they did! The Dalai Lama was one of these, back in 1976 (or perhaps 1979). She told this story as an elucidation of the vihara of compassion. She’d done a lot of work, she said, arranging the visit by the Dalai Lama, but she’d sustained a broken foot before it happened, and when he was about to walk into the place they had fixed up there, she was standing back toward the back of the hall, on crutches, and feeling pretty miserable and very sorry for herself (one of my crucial flaws, also).

If only I didn’t have this broken leg, if only I wasn’t on these crutches, I could be right up there at the front and speak to him and perhaps ask a question – she’d be more in the middle of things. But the bad break had left her relegated back in the back of this huge crowd of people and unable to get any closer.

          When HHDL walked in – and Salzberg pointed out that she discovered later that this was not unusual for him but something he did quite often – he walked directly over to where she stood on the crutches.

“What happened?” he asked. “How did you hurt yourself?”

I wish I could remember some of her other stories. She was quite the raconteur.

I went back to my tent and wrapped my blanket up around myself in a somewhat bearable seated posture, and I did a metta meditation of my own devising.

                         Back—

With a faint feeling of sadness, mixed a bit with pleasant anxiety, I again rise early, but later than the bear, and I do not bathe. I pack my stuff, decide to stay long enough for one more delicious bowl of oatmeal, and thereafter hit the road. Before I leave I run into Zett; she wishes me Godspeed.

It’s about 108 miles (fortuitous number!) from Shambhala Mountain Center to my daughter’s apartment in Denver, and the trip this morning is different from the trip three days ago because there is no fog. Everything that was hidden from me before is now revealed. It feels very much like a Sunday, and I take my time, stopping to take my last batch of photographs and just to breathe the air. I know I am descending, and it takes a little creative decompression to make the adjustments – sort of like coming down out of headstand slowly and with the stomach muscles engaged . . . . I almost leave the road a few times as I stare at the configurations of the land around here – at one point some treeless slopes resemble nothing so much as the toes of a very large foot, ravines down between each one – many miles behind me, visible only occasionally, is the whitened face of a glacier. I bid this land farewell after I pass the Forks store for the cappuccino, fixed for me this time by the proprietor, who tells me “this is as much green as I’ve seen around here at this time of the year.” The sky arches out before me and the land flattens…high plains begin here, a sign could truthfully read.

Two hours later, I’m back in Denver. Val and I try to find a place to eat breakfast, eventually do, and discuss her imminent move to Hawaii, where her girlfriend’s mother now lives ($1500/month!). They’re selling everything they have for the trip, and should be leaving by the end of next month. My firstborn child seems less sick this morning, and I’m very glad to see her. She seems a bit apprehensive about the move, but also excited. We discuss the foibles of our other immediate family members as we eat omelets slathered in green chili, and in a little while, after repacking, I am en route to the airport. Here a bit of trouble ensues.

The security wait is much longer than the DIA (locals call the airport DOA because of the troubles that occurred before it was built), and I realize I’m going to miss my plane, if it leaves on time. Some people urge me to go ahead of them, and I do, but by the time I reach the gate, it’s too late. The plane is gone. A blonde woman with flashing eyes is deeply angry, almost to the point of screaming at the relatively calm people behind the AirTran counter (are they really? Or do they just see this so often that they have become indifferent? Are they indifferent – 4th brahamavihara – or equanimious). When I see her anger, somehow my own stress is defused or perhaps becomes more diffuse. I concentrate on what I can do to get home quickly. “Check Delta and Frontier,” says the counter clerk. I ride the shuttle-train back and forth for a while and eventually, after a phone call, make some arrangements, get a ticket and then have to go back through the security lines again. Will there be enough time? I can only hope.

The lines move fast, but this time I must fit some terrorist profile, because I am singled out to a checkpoint off to one side. My socks are checked with the wand. A woman pulls my folded yoga mat out of my backpack and looks carefully at my books. Of course they eventually let me go, and as I glance at the clock I realize I’ll make it. I relax. Now the only thing to worry about is the plane crashing, and there’s not much point in worrying about that.

I’m tired.

I’m hungry.

I begin to realize that nothing back home will have changed: the grass a little longer in the yard, the dog’s fur a bit nappier and tangled, a few more bills to pay. All the things that make home not-home come swarming in, but I try to doze anyway, without success. The stewardess, in a thick but pleasant Scandinavian accent, asks if I would like some Chicken Pasta.

“Do you have any vegetarian dishes…some vegetables?”

“No!” she adamantly replies. “I’m sorry.”

Evening falls at 39,000 feet. I try to get interested in the patterns of the earth and the clouds – far, far to the south of Oklahoma City there are some stacks of cumulo-nimbus that one might mistake for skyscrapers – but it’s difficult. I am actually a little hungry, having had my last meal over 12 hours ago. The guy next to me works diligently on his laptop – I can tell he’s doing work, not fun stuff, by the things I read over his shoulder. Jeez, the whole world is so busy. People driving and talking on the cellphones. Guy flying can’t even take a moment to look out the window, so busy he is with preparing tomorrow’s work. My spirits begin to flag. The stewardess brings my friend his Chicken Pasta, plus a redolent roll and a decent-looking salad. I try to read, but my attention  drifts toward the fairyland lights of Memphis, Tennessee. I play a game with myself, trying to figure out which city is easing by beneath me as we proceed toward Atlanta, where by now my wife is waiting for me. This plane was late leaving.

“Would you like my salad and roll?” the worker with the laptop asks me. “I’m on a low carb diet and they’re really just temptations to me….”

I am surprised. “Sure, thanks, man, you must’ve read my mind!” I munch the salad and roll and also the tiny slice of pie.

It occurs to me: here’s a gratuitous act of kindness, one stranger being nice to another. And I had written him off as a workaholic – I had pigeon-holed him in my mind, just as Sharon Salzberg said we always do when we’re angry. Sometimes we even pigeon-hole ourselves. 

Epilogue 

Every year around the second or third week of August, I have noticed, there begins to be a noticeable influx of bright yellow tourista butterflies. They always fly from north to south, so I assume there’s a migration going on. They pause only to nourish themselves at local flowers, and somehow they know which way is north and which is south. You sometimes see them in pairs. For me, these butterflies are consolatory harbingers, reminders that the hot summer is almost over and soon we’ll start getting the cool mornings, the dropping sycamore leaves, then the maples, then the black walnuts, then the oaks. They are my own personal anicca emblems, yellow flying symbols for the transience of everything in our lives.

                             © 2004 Thomas N. Dennis