> jumping into life.


We think we are our minds, he said, and we think that our minds reside inside our skulls. But really we fill our whole bodies, and we permeate out from our bodies, we fill this whole room, and this valley; we sink into the mountains and through the mountains to the sea; we fill the sea and extend out of it to the sun and the stars; we fill the whole universe, each of us, all of us; and the power that moves it all is love.

Silence in the zendo. There are moments when it is utterly, viscerally clear that to sit and stare at a wall - to cultivate honesty and clarity and presence in myself - is the best thing I can do for the world. This is how to save all beings, just this. If I don't understand my own chaos, I cannot affect it; if I am operating in chaos I can only bring more chaos to the world.

And yet. And yet.

And yet in the zendo I raised my voice to question the teacher: what about when I can't believe that this valley full of lovingkindness reaches out to the world? What about when the world is choking on its own suffering and this is an excuse, an escape? What does it mean to be a monastic in this world? Shouldn't we all be pushing our altars into the streets, sitting our zazen in front of tanks and bulldozers? There is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, there are prison programs and hospice programs, people writing letters. What does this tradition require of us? How shall we respond to atrocity, to the suffering of this age? How shall I respond? Can I respond as a being who is the universe, who is a function of love? What happens when I lay the ego down? My body is engulfed in sadness as soon as I let it rest.

It is so hard to stay open in this world. So much easier to pass by the open palms, the silent eyes. So much easier not to read the newspaper, not to watch this movie. Just send my $20 to the ACLU and settle back onto my cushion. Ah, but my body is engulfed in sadness as soon as I let it rest. The sounds of the city leak through the walls, and the pain walks through the door with me.

He did not answer me, that morning in the zendo, just let my words sit heavy and then rang the bell. If this is what a crisis of faith looks like, I'm glad to be having it. I do not know what practice means. I think it is important to allow myself to be engulfed in sadness. I think it is important to remember that I am only space and information, a collection of particles fundamentally indistinguishable from the particles of the couch I sit on and certainly from the particles of the dead in Darfur. Important also to remember that every action of mine is an action of the universe, every moment of my joy is one more moment of joy in the universe, every descent into despair one more piece of pain. My country has betrayed itself, again. And again I pledge myself to that which is wild and honest and free. I think zazen is part of it; I think it may be the part that allows me to be wild and honest and free myself. In a world where those qualities are either perverted beyond recognition or discouraged to the point of prohibition, that is something. It is not enough, but it is something.


Last night, in the lamplit dining room, my favorite Zen teacher gave us an orientation to the practice period: this is when we'll wake up (5:00), this is where we'll go (the zendo), these are the events you're required to attend (morning zazen and service) and these are suggested (noon service, evening zazen, morning workshops, evening classes), et cetera. Paul is my favorite teacher in part because I don't know many teachers, but also because he sees straight into me and he does it with kindness. He gave a Dharma talk at Tassajara this summer that began with a poem: It is not a crime to be Romeo or Juliet. It is not a crime even to die for love. I cried until I woke up the next morning, and I signed myself up for dokusan that day.

Dokusan, or pracitice discussion, is a tradition in which a student sits down formally with a teacher to discuss whatever issues are coming up in practice at the time. My issues all summer revolved mostly around what my life has revolved mostly around for the past decade or so: the need to be Romeo or Juliet, all the time. The compulsion to be in love, to be giving everything to love, all the time. Which compulsion is romantic and benign-seeming enough - even positive-seeming - to allow me to ignore the neurotic, fear-driven, manipulative side of it. The compulsion to make someone else be in love with me, all the time. The compulsion then to test that love - how far back can I draw and still have him follow? How hard can I push before he gives way?

An ugly part of the reason I left him back in January is that he sees straight through me: Stop running, he says. Stop pushing. Cut it out. The ego doesn't like that; the ego doesn't like much, and these days I don't like my ego, either. But my habit-energy is strong, and I am not as good at pinning myself down. So I find myself up against a wall (pinned and wriggling on the wall), with the edge of a long-evaded decision against the soft skin of my insecurity, my ambiguity, and my fear. I've been trying to hold on to him without letting it be so obvious that he could call me on it, but he called me on it. My defenses caved in one by one, but they were up again by this morning so that when he called and said, cut it out for real and mean it, I swerved out of the way.

It is not a crime to be Romeo or Juliet. I wish I could find the rest of the poem. I sat down with Paul and told him I didn't know what I wanted to talk about, but I knew I needed to talk to him. He asked me about my practice; I told him I couldn't tell when love was good and when it became destructive.

But I do know. It is destructive when I clutch it, when I try to wrap myself in it so that it will protect me and also so that I will be able to slip out of it if I so desire. I do not think I made a mistake in leaving him; I think that I had wound us both in my neuroses and we needed out. I needed out. If I come back it will be with my eyes open, my heart in my teeth. If I come back I will be mudsoaked and bonescared with my bloodstained teeth, grinning.


In the morning, the fog sits so close to the window that I wonder if I've died. It wouldn't be so surprising, what with all the chaos I've waded through these last few days. But I haven't died, and instead I shave my head back down, zip my jacket up, and wade this time out into the world. The internal is still combusting: I burnt myself down to the ground again last night, a long long dig into what it means to be honest with love. There are shockwaves yet shivering through me and the shudder of the metro station is merely an echo. A sapling elm in an awkward backbend along the sidewalk, a flock of pelicans hanging weightily over the bay, the memory of a sunlit, sweetbreezed Washington road.

I started work today; I'll be moving in at Zen Center for the practice period on Friday. Then an all-day sit on Saturday: thank everything for that.


City. Loud. Overwhelmed. More soon.


One reason why I'm glad to be going back to Tassajara, even if just for the day: Nobody will have this fucking feature on their camera. Via Rabi, who denounces it soundly.

And if that (or the rest of the world, for that matter) makes you itch for a good dose of healthy feminism, I suggest checking out Heather Corrina and her new project, which I should be getting involved in once I'm settled in SF.

Which brings me to: I'm leaving today to go to Tassajara, and then to get settled in SF. I'll see you when all that's over.


morning sits.

the bell comes,
louder than the creek.
we tumble into our brains;
hardly have the echoes faded
and I am babbling. silent,
but babbling.

the jays repeat
their morning mantra.

I greet my fear,
my desire,
my anxious mind:
am I late?
too early? will my feet smell,
what socks
to wear,
will I have coffee, or tea?

not until the end bell rings
do i realize

i am awake.

[written 5/19]


in my dream they are natives of some small village. it is an andean village maybe; doesn't matter. i am visiting, an anthropologist or something like. i am a man. there is someone with me, a guide, something. everyone left the village once, years ago. in the dream it is to go to school. not everyone, but close enough. the way the draft takes everyone. when they came back, the military occupied the village. occupied every corner. forbidden were fires, and music, and love. one caught engaging in any forbidden act was subject to death. i do not remember the plot, or the plot is unrememberable, but i remember the end. the anthropologist is asking questions. he wants to know what it was like before. people are remembering. he speaks of love. he can do this because he is foreign and white and too much trouble to kill.

at the end, there is a woman, nighttime, outside her door with a big box. she yells for him. she is crying. she begins to unload the box - the contents make no sense, even in the dream: sneakers, a sheaf of paper, a mug. the mug has hearts on it. she begins screaming.

i believe in love
i believe in love
i believe in love

there is torchlight, wild flame. she screams into the house - stand with me! stand with me! she knows she is going to be killed. she is unloading more things from the box, throwing them on the flagstones. i don't know what they are. there is sound of footsteps, or something that tells her the militia is near.

i believe in love
i believe in love
i believe in love

her voice is failing. she puts her head in the doorway. stand with me, papa! desperate. stand with me daddy! he is not her daddy, but why doesn't he answer? for a moment we we see him hurrying through hallways, somewhere.

by the time he reaches the street there is a knife through her throat, hilt deep. the dream narrates: the way an assassin is killed, or a woman or a child stabs another. the soldier turns to him. he also believes in love, arches his head back to prove it. the soldier may be crying, or he hesitates because the anthropologist is foreign and white. american. the knife is raised. the anthropologist murmurs, ada.

the soldier walks away, brisk, as though his business is done and he has matters to attend to. she is not dead, the hilt sticking out of her white throat. he wants her to tell him to take it out, but she does not. she asks for a drink of water; he knows she wants coffee or sweet clear vodka but brings her water. brings her to water, carrying her in his arms. it is nighttime, the torch still guttering in its stand. we both know she will die.


I learned to play the guitar this summer. Or, I started learning to play the guitar this summer, as it takes more than a month or two unless you are a music genius which I am not. Or, I started learning to play the guitar again this summer, as I took lessons when I was in sixth grade and then carted my guitar all over the country with me for ten years without playing it. Until this summer.

There is a clause in the Tassajara summer guidelines that expressly forbids the bringing of musical instruments, which deterred me but not everybody. We had to hike a good ways to be out of earshot of the valley - up the hill to the treehouse at first, but then once somebody came up to join us 'cause it sounded like so much fun from the dorms, so later around two bends in the creek just to be sure. Amy had a guitar and then we borrowed one either from Simon without asking but returned with a smile or Ayna if we could find her, and Dave who used to be in a band in Texas taught us the songs he knew, and Amy had some tabs in her guitar case. And we played.

In sixth grade my lessons involved lots of scales and songs like Greensleeves, with my straight-backed instructor scowling. My lessons this summer involved finding a comfy rock by the creek, then belting out Leonard Cohen or Willie Nelson or old union songs or whatever Dave could remember, and not feeling self-conscious because he was belting it out and good so you might as well sing along.

At some point in college I wrote a half-hearted song or three, which tended to change key midway because I had a very vague understanding of keys. At best. My understanding is not much better, but my ears are, and I think my songs.

At any rate, I can now play Brown Eyed Girl really loud, which I'm sure everybody appreciates. And the guitar is coming with me to San Francisco, regardless of what the guidelines say.


It is hard to get back into the rhythm of writing, of life. I'll be moving to the city in a weekish, which thought conjures remarkably little emotion in me: a buzz of excitement for work, a thrum of big-city-last-time-it-almost-killed-me fear, a wash of relief that at least I can say I am going somewhere when people ask.

In the meantime, I am gardening for my parents, walking the farmer's market slowly on Tuesdays and Thursdays, promising myself I'll go to the Monterey Zen Center and not going, drinking excessive amounts of espresso and eating excessive amounts of sushi. I am getting used to mirrors again, and pavement, and the day-consuming power of The Internet. I am not spending enough time at the beach.

At Tassajara, people said that once you start practicing for real, you shouldn't go back home for a year at least; or if you have to, you shouldn't go for more than three or four days. Family karma is stiff stuff, big energy, hard to escape. Most everyone turns back into an adolescent in their mother's kitchen. Most everyone doesn't want to be an adolescent anymore. Myself included.

But: The neighbor's doves are cooing and pecking on the roof next door, whiter than the fog. The fog is wrapped tighter than a terry robe and twice as soft. There are tomatoes and apples side-by-side at the farmer's market, which I still cannot walk down without running into everyone I know. It will be time and time for leaving by the time I go, but it is nonetheless good to be home.


In high school, drag racing past the cheap motels, I did not feel free. The engine churned higher and higher - 50 mph, 65, 70 on a road signed for 35 - and it did not give me wings. Nor the ocean scraping its lacy skin against the rocks. Nor the rough sex on sticky back seats, cold bathrooms, musty trailers with the ravens circling outside. I have lost all those poems, long ago. There is nothing to tie me to that girl; no proof she ever existed. I don't even remember the time I spent on the stage, bright stage-light heat staining the armpits of my costume (I was a nurse, or a page, or a wandering musician just stopped in for the night), like I don't remember taking the tests that launched me into college, like I don't remember the time I tasted death and found it was my own saliva, which if it wasn't foaming it should've been.

I also don't remember the first night we spent together. I may have been too drunk; I may have been too scared. I also don't remember when we first said I love you - none of them, actually, except the very first which was past midnight in my driveway and the streetlights flickered out and it was true anyway.

Later, I noticed that I was living exactly the life I'd wanted and it didn't surprise me. Nor did the sun set perfectly even once. Nor have I watched the sunrise but twice in all those years.

Later still, manzanitas dropped their heavy fruit, tasting strangely of ocean, of fish, and I let my gaze drop, too: unfocused, forty-five degrees. I am not an enlightened being. Hotei raises his hands in glee; a bird crossing the sky is an endless being in the heart of endlessness. As am I. Though wingless. Though perfect. Buddha touched the earth, after all. (I touch the earth, after all.) And she said, yes.


Today it is blessedly foggy; four months of unremitting sun after most of two years of unremitting sun and I have been aching for weather. Once we all ran outside in the middle of work to gape at two clouds puffing their lonesome way across the sky. But today I am in the room I grew up in, looking out on a view as familiar as the inside of my eyelids. The room is exactly as it was when I left it four months ago, which is exactly as it was when I left it two years before that. It feels rather as though I was sucked into some time-warp and then spit back out just a few moments after I left. If it weren't for the monster hugs my friends here have been bestowing me, I would suspect that I dreamt the whole thing. That, and the fact that I've been dancing on the edge of tears every time a siren comes by, or a seagull, or a particularly good bite of heirloom tomato.

But I'm back! And I'm pretty sure that's a good thing.


Listen: The monk rapped on the coffin, calling "Alive or dead? Alive or dead?" and even though the master replied, "I won't say, I won't say," my heart screamed back, Alive! Threw me forward in my seat, thrumming, Alive! Not just the absence of death; joy is more than the ceasing of pain. Alive! Alive!

Listen: Once I stayed in bed for three days, neither sleeping nor dying, while winter sang its grey snowsong outside. Once I traced the bone of my hip with a thin blade; once I forgot to eat for a week. Once I consumed men because men give off life. I would lick their sweat and call it honey, drink their dreams and call them mine.

Listen: The world comes right up to the membranes of your eyes. It passes through your skin until you reek of it; there is no escape. Once I walked uphill for three hours with death pacing me, off to the right, very close. The hills yawned open. Death slid her soft hand into mine, wanted to show me the view. The deer watched from a distance, their skin shivering in the sun.

Once I rode on the back of a red scooter, no helmet, wind on my toes. I spread my arms out like we were flying; no fear, no fear.

Listen, listen: Alive or dead? Alive or dead? The world comes right up to the thumping of your veins. The creek swallows the mountain, grain by grain and you are missing it. When the shadow of the hawk passes over you, you will flinch like any field mouse. It is worse not to.

Once I met his eyes for the first time across a dark room and my heart threw me forward in my seat, screaming "Alive!" Once we stood on the edge of a canyon; once we walked farther than I can walk in a day and then stood at the top on the edge and he slipped his hand into mine and our hearts both screamed, Alive! Alive! Alive!

Listen: That is why I loved him. Each morning his eyes were a knock on my coffin, and each morning the answer came easy as a gift: no fear, no fear. Alive.


Lord, but it's cold out here.