Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Life Through Glass

We had a Chevrolet station wagon, several actually, over many years, and my parents, with their brood of tow heads spent many miles on the road. We summered there, and also moved every year or so, changing schools, houses, friends, places. We traveled across the country, through Montana, even up to Alaska where my dad was stationed. Those miles in a tightly packed car with six kids and a cat or two made me ache with curiosity.

I wondered what was up a road or in a distant canyon. I wondered what the places were like, what the stories were of people who lived under the mercury lights over farms at night. But as fast as they came into view, they disappeared. And the next scene presented itself, offering the same questions.

I learned to see life through glass, to stand back and let people and places slip through my fingers like scoops of sand at the beach. I learned to stay in the background, to imagine what things might be like. I learned to play it safe, to protect myself from losing things and people.

Since then I am most comfortable moving. I don't like to stay on one topic or in the company of the same people for more than is temporary and comfortable. I don't get involved.

That's become something of a problem now that I live in one place, sleep with one woman, work at one job and have living, breathing sons. It takes some work to step out from behind the glass and walk into the scene, up the road, and into the canyon where I meet what I have most wondered about -- a life lived in one place, beyond the distractions of always moving, changing the channel, on to the next town or big thing.

My shrink once told me that I lived a tentative life. I thought that really sucked, but that it was true. Tentativeness was possible because I believed that I could, and would, always move on. I saw no point in getting attached to anything, to stepping out from behind the glass, out of a lazy life and into one that would slowly kill me with roots that overtook and outshone the wonder of what might be.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

With Abandon

It has been another tough week, one tough enough to break the back of anyone who still draws breath and has two fully functioning heart valves. Life is a hammer sometimes, most times actually.

A friend, a young woman, died last Friday. She drank herself to death, and is survived by an infant son and unemployed husband. Another friend, a young man got his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. A teacher of mine, called, his voice slurred with pain-numbing smoke, to tell me his wife is not doing well, is a 24 hour job that he can no longer handle.

This list could go on, and yes,  there is suffering everywhere I look.

All of this plays in my head as I commute to my job teaching at the university. My heavy bike doesn't complain and is a steady companion. I love him/her for all that solid dependability, that pig-iron charm.

And it talks to me as we turn off of Dodge (fitting, given what we have to sometimes do in car traffic) and Speedway (also fitting for obvious reasons). The fat tires roll over cracks in the pavement and the detritus of city castoffs that end up on the shoulder of busy streets: broken bottles, carpet tacks, scrap lumber, dead animals, a toilet tank. It doesn't complain or even slow down. In fact, it speeds up when gravity has its way.

I try to follow the example and take some of the brakes off my own life.

Students expect an onerous day of editing analysis essays and they likely will groan when I breeze into the room, all sparkly with English teacher jargon and didactic enthusiasm for critical thinking. We will slip on the masks of student and teacher, will play our roles with predictable outcomes.

At least that is one possible scenario. But my bike, a matte black clunker that looks like it has survived a nuclear blast, is having none of it. It is flying into the cavernous slot of the Death Star en route to either death or salvation of the universe. It whispers "Feel the Force, Erk."

I say "What!?"

Again, a little clearer, "Feel the Force, Erk."

Only family and weird people like my wife call me Erk, although many associate me with the word "twerk," but that is another essay.

So, yes, I am going down Speedway toward campus and I feel the bike come to life as we become the Great Pizza -- One-With-Everything -- in a rolling dance of grace, power, exquisite harmony amid the broken glass of the bike lane.

A storm trooper in a dually-wheeled pickup truck whizzes past, mirror dangerously close to my ear.  (No, I am not wearing a helmet. There are days when a helmet seems to miss the point.)

I pick up the pace, my sandals driving into the pedals, toes curling to better grip the bear traps.

Waters part.

A path appears through the blur of a chaotic, post-modern subverted liminal space, heteroglossic, fragmented tangle of grief, paradox, and conflicting, relativist contingencies.

In other words, laser cannons blaze away as I pass through the gray machinery of indifference and duty, unharmed through the barrage.

We will break out today, I think. We will deviate from the syllabus, use technology like we stole it, and find a reason to sing the songs of academic analysis.

Yeah, that sounds good.

"Let it go. See what happens. You will never know if you don't try."

This stinker of a bike just won't shut up.

"OK," I say. "OK."

It's a one-in-a-million chance, but I've got to take it. No one else will, or can; it's my only shot. Yes, no one can do this for me, but I can do it for a woman now gone, a motherless son, a young man trapped in genius cage.

"Feel the force, Erk."

"Squeeze the trigger softly when the moment is right because that is the only last ongoing chance you will get."

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Tao of Popeye

It wasn't supposed to go this way, and I don't know where it went awry. Or, more honestly, I do know, but don't want to admit it, even to myself.

I was supposed to have gotten it together by now, grown up, done something that would count as a life well spent.  A good novel, a thriving, creative community of friends, travel, food, a full social calendar, talks, people wanting my time.

Mine was supposed to look like the life of those pharmaceutical commercials where youngish Boomers frolic on beaches, in the mountains, on road trips in vintage cars. Sports cars wind along coastal roads when they aren't parked outside a remote cabin next to a panting black leopard. These models of living well show us how it should be; they smile and fish and have the smugness of having done it all right.

Their lives are full and balanced. Families gather around big tables and smile in honey light. You know the food is perfect, that love flows, there are no hatchets that need to be buried. No doubt they have great sex, discretionary cash, cars that don't break down, houses that are always clean.

But, my reality, while sharing some of the ideal, especially the good people, is a bit of a mess. Confusion, exhaustion, wrong turns, flat tires. Wrinkles and sags tell the truth of time passing while the things I have to show for having been here amount to little or nothing. I have taken up so much time and so many resources and produced so little. Instead of a sleek panther, my life is more like a tired buffalo -- out of juice and hunted to near extinction.

Others, surely, have done a better job, made more of their time, but when I look around, we're all pretty much in the same boat: below expectations.

I guess part of growing up means growing out of idealistic dreams and accepting what will be possible. That means being human, a bit ugly, and, to an honest eye, a grotesque parody of some advertising ideal. I have to settle for the fact that mine will not be the life portrayed in the Cialis commercials.

Still, I can't shake this nagging sense of lack. Something isn't good enough. Life should look like those commercials.

Does that discontent lead to healthy striving or does it poison living the life one is given? Probably a mix of both.

A while back I wanted to be a competitive runner, to turn in six minutes miles over 10K runs, maybe place in my age group. I talked to a running coach and went for a run. He listened as I spilled my goals all over the track.

Being the kindly type, he listened well and matched my strides with beautiful strides of his own, though he was breathing with far greater ease than I was. When I was done, he said simply "You can't be anywhere other than where you are."

He referred, of course to running, to heart rate, fitness, ligaments, VO2 max, and other running specific measures of performance, but I took it to be a larger truth.

That moment it went awry was the moment I gave up my life for some ideal that I saw in a mythological ideal. The requirements of work, focus, and time were replaced by an unrealistic belief that it would just "happen." The box car of reality was uncoupled from the engine of fantasy. Rather than a real life of struggle and imperfection I opted for a life of the mind that didn't require hard work and a bit of ego death. 

Yes, I can't be anywhere other than where I am, and that is the starting point for where I want to go, or stay. Hard to admit, but the middle-aged, sun-spotted, sagging, under-whelming writer is where I am. Bummer or bliss, that's the way it is. 

I look to our pantheon visionaries for guidance, and there I find my teacher, Popeye. I hear him humbly proclaiming "I am what I yam."

Yes, dear Mentor, you and me both. I am what I yam, and likely might still surprise myself with what I yam becoming. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Where to Focus

My students are playing by a different set of learning and social rules than I did when I was in school. They look to their e-devices for answers, and, often, find them. The digital universe is a wildly wealthy vein of information, and social media offer up seductive rewards of recognition. They are immersed in a world I barely know. Their brains have been shaped to thrive in Cyberlandia. They like it. I am not crazy about it. If they are digital natives, I am something like a digital hostage taken at cursor point into a world I resist, that fails to feed me, that has air I can barely breathe, sustenance that tastes like cardboard, and a prickly coercion to be perennially distracted from the here and now.

It's not that Digitalia can't require a certain type of concentration or focus, it's that it pulls me out of "this world," the world of sights, smells, flesh, blood, livelihood, earthly delight, and onerous tasks. This world is also an inner world, accessible by quiet reflection and solitude. This world is vastly complex, paradoxical, incomprehensible, and chaotic. This world requires a different set of rules to thrive in than that other world. This world asks that I sometimes delay gratification to get what I want, that I sometimes engage with work that is tedious, painful, not fun, or laden with immediate gratification.

This world has a different set of causes and effects. At the end of the day, or, if I am honest, the end of this life, what I hope to have done is to first study this reality and then to act well in it. I want to examine what keeps me from being happy and then change what I need to change in order to be happy. For example, if I spend time surfing FaceBook instead of answering prison correspondence, I likely will not be very happy because I did not do what it was I really wanted to do, how it was I wanted to spend my minutes, day, life. The little decisions and avoidance add up, become habits, begin to ossify, become hard to change.

It takes a cold hard look at reality to see that, to look at the causes and effects, and then act with intention to change, to create the effect that I want.

I find the digital world to be a bit addictive. I get a dopamine hit when someone "likes" something I post on FaceBook. I love it when I get an email that offers me money, publication, recognition, a plan for a weekend bike ride. I wait for them like Pavlov's Dog at his dish. And I learn that I get more of that if I behave in a certain way. People like light and happy and non-commital ephemera that titillate but don't ask for much beyond a click. The result is that I comply and sink further into the dopamine-eliciting behaviors, spending more and more time wired to the screen.

Social media act on me like a drug. They trigger pleasure enough to keep me staring at the screen, even when nothing is happening. The hope of a "hit" pulls me in, away from the far less pleasurable world outside the flying electrons and computer codes. Addiction is a problem because it pulls focus away from the diverse functions that humans need to live a full and balanced life.

Addictive priorities shrink to a single obsession: Where do I get my next fix? I know men and women for whom heroin and meth became more important than family, health, freedom, and life. Given the numbers of students I see glued to their phones as they fly through stop signs or wander around the sunlit campus at the University of Arizona, I would judge that the cyber world is more important to them than this one. They choose to spend their conscious attention on the virtual world, to purchase the benefits and rewards of that world, as much or more than the world of sun, sidewalks, and hunger. If consciousness is like a teeter-totter, then we are tipping ours more and more toward a mind that resides in a world on line.

Yes, I sound like a retro-grouch curmudgeon. But I am not slamming the digital world with the hope that we chuck it and return to the bear-skin loin cloths and spears of the "real world." I am noticing that my ability to focus on my life outside the cyber one has decreased. I don't want to. The "real" world is not rewarding in the same way that the digital world is. It requires a different way of being. It requires a higher pain tolerance, for one thing. It requires planning, goal setting, sustained attention. It requires work and intention. And one has to learn how to operate successfully in it. (Of course, part of that is being able to operate as well in the digital environment.)

The fully effective human needs to be fluent in both worlds. The piece that is missing for me is the training in mindfulness, the ability to focus in spite of excessive distraction.

This is not about being some kind of masochist, about seeking out pain. It is about being comfortable with adversity as part of movement toward a goal or a vision. It is about emphasis, priority, order, ranking. Does my life depend on digital connection or on soil, water, air, food, shelter, and some kind of social contribution in that other world? Which is my master? To whom do I pay attention? 

I confess that I have gotten weak, and need to begin an exercise program that will toughen my up enough for re-entry into the demanding and chaotic reality of my life. It begins with attention. To what do I pay attention? On what do I spend my mental energy, my limited intellectual capital? In what will I invest my life?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Something's Happening

I get up early, usually about 4:30 or 5:00. Those early hours offer up a quiet that sets the tone for the rest of the day. If I stay in bed and rush off to teach without that quiet, meditative reflection time, my days feel "off," distracted, disconnected from a sense of vision or direction.

These early exercises in quiet have begun to alter the direction of my life. I write more, for one thing. I surprise myself with what I say on the page, what I see in ordinary events, what comes to me out the tangled distraction that constitutes the rest of my life. There is a life, or a part of my life, that only comes into being if I compose it, frame it, dramatize it, in words, explicitly. That life bears a stark contrast to the other life, a pin-ball life, that is more reflex and reaction than choice, heartfelt response. Somehow all the scurrying around, all that hyped-up chatter about stuff and gossip and enlistment in other people's projects is not "me." It is in the morning that I see this. In the morning I hear what is my heart's desire.

A small jewel falls out of the chaos and says "This is what is important for you today."

When I examine that little nugget of vision and meaning I feel energized and open.

I also try to remember it as I move through the day, and, more importantly, to act on it. That usually means stealing some time from my work obligations. I work on the prison magazine, a job for which I am not given any release time. I answer inmate letters. Same thing. I plan what we will do in the workshops. I write vignettes about the workshops in my blogs. No pay there either. Yet I feel "called" to do these things.

And things happen. The student newspaper, The Daily Wildcat ran an article about an inmate story being made into a film.

Normally, the English Department would celebrate a faculty member being mentioned in a news article, but for this, nothing but silence, a deafening silence. Hmmm.

And I was invited to present at a book festival, a pretty big deal. Here too: Nothing.

A three day conference on creative writing: nothing. 

I have to wonder what Christ meant when he said "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's." Where does Caesar end and that which I cannot understand begin?

That is a question that needs some work, because I am not covering my duties very well, even though I work long days.

This "other" work is like a secret, double life, for which I am not compensated. As a result, I am running in the red, financially, but finally beginning to feel alive, passionate about what I do. I am also getting into some trouble with The Man. No more on that, but the question remains:

Where to go with this...?

My plan for now, is to simply keep moving, one step at a time, in the direction of a quiet voice, a barely visible, shining jewel that resonates with a truth beyond words, a truth of the heart.

Yes, I will listen to that, while having to make some hard decisions about where I will put my time and energy, where the line between Caesar and mystery ends or begins.

That, or just keep sleeping. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

She Reassured Him

They went to the wedding as a favor to the bride. Neither knew her well, but there would be food, maybe some laughs. It had gone nicely so far, better than expected, and the evening surprised them with its rare loveliness. 

The night offered itself up like an answer to secret hope, with the selflessness of a new lover. Tiny stars on electric wire wound their way up trees in the courtyard as the sun set behind a crimson horizon. A deep blue followed the receding reds and pinks, and as the sky darkened, the moon peeked over a mountain ridge to the east. It was all linked together, all in motion on an October night in Tucson. The heat of the day radiated up and out into the cold, violet indifference of space. Fernanda borrowed Jason's sport coat to fend off the first chill of darkness.

Music played. She wanted to dance. And Jason had some really good weed, so good that she knew they would go home after the reception, fall into bed and find each other under covers as the train passed through the downtown, blaring its deafening warning.

But now, they sat at the banquet table with strangers. She drew the eyes of men, she being the perfect mix of young, fresh, smooth, and cool womanhood. Pheromones wafted off of her. I heard a falcon shriek from his perch on one of the downtown skyscrapers. Her eyes sparkled with the same, clear sharpness of the Christmas lights winding up the trunks and branches of the trees. There was glitter mixed with her eye shadow. She radiated an openness braided with mystery and exotic blossoms. She spoke with the slightest of accents, was from deep in Mexico a long time ago. But now she was above the rough status of immigrant, having climbed up the educational barrier into professional income and easy American sophistication. She was fluent in the moves.

Jason looked a little worried when one of the men looked closely at her and spoke to her with an intimacy that took Fernanda by surprise. She warmed to the stranger as if by reflex.

Jason straightened up, taking more notice of the conversation. He needed her to want to be with him. There was so much undone in his life, and her attention helped him to forget, or at least to tolerate the nagging need to get his act together. He found comfort in her, craved her like an addict craves a fix. She could break him with a tilt of her head. So much was at stake. He did not want to be alone with hard facts.

Fernanda saw this, or sensed it. She took her hand from the table and reached for his leg. She ran her smooth, small, strong hands along his thigh, in full view of others.

She was his, her hand said, and Jason fell back then, into a relaxed posture, now resting against the stiff back of the chair.

She would wear his jacket, go with him to the quiet place where they could share a joint, watch the sun's warm colors give way to night, and then look for that peace where sleep comes without fear.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

To Really See a Thing

You have to stare.

You have to stare so long that all the thoughts and feelings and associations run their course, get bored, and run off to lives on the coast.

Then, when all that chatter dies down, you might be lucky enough to see the thing as it is.

As it is in all the miracle of its form at this moment.

Even a humble chunk of gravel, the modest aggregate of granite, or quartzite, or garnet, is in motion, in transit, an ongoing event.

The zebra-tail and desert spiny lizard share this pulsing ephemerality. 

How did all those atoms come together to make this shape, color, texture, and ongoing event of this thing as it is?

If you begin to know the answer to this question, you are likely old enough to see that you too are a moving mass of energy, that most likely is in some form of decline. Your heart knows that what you call "me" is shutting down, slowly, and that this particular expression and arrangement of form is in transition.

Then part of you will know the loss and perhaps be afraid.

But you cannot lose something that you truly know, and you cannot truly know without grieving the loss of what is, and loss becomes joy as you witness what is becoming. Joy and grief trade places.

Joy and grief allow you to really see the thing, but are not a substitute for knowing the thing. That comes later when there is no longer any difference between the two.

Then there is no Other. You are the thing you see, the thing you seek.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Invisible Courage

Students in passing periods at the University of Arizona clog the hallways of the Memorial Union. Walkers, mainly students in the blossom of beauty and youth, move like blood cells through crowded veins. Most of them carry an air of confidence, are simmering in age-appropriate narcissistic self-assurance, and they dress to the nines, with looks right out of fashion magazines.

Yesterday I came face-to-face with a young man who did not fit the mold. His features were exceedingly  deformed, the cranial symmetry distorted in a shocking misplacement of of eye sockets, cheek, nose off to the side, and mouth that turned down on the left side. The condition looked genetic, not trauma caused.

And he was not dressed up in the hottest hipster gear.

I had to collect myself so I didn't stare, or worse, wrinkle my face in fright.

This young man passed through the flowing river of students with the same air of purpose and direction as the rest. I had to wonder how he had acquired such courage.

And the amount of courage it must take to get up day after day and enter the beauty parade of a place like the UA, must be up there with the great heroes of history. And, yet, he likely received little, in any fanfare or recognition for this heroism beyond a devoted family or long-term friends.

If he were a veteran, returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, he likely would have been lauded for his courage. Fighting a country's wars, or doing the bidding of the ruling class usually wins a pat on the back and some public acclaim.

But recognition of heroism is not evenly or fairly distributed. A personal battle to get up and face a world that never stops staring at you does not necessarily register on the radar of Good Morning America.

If there were a way to measure courage, to measure the degree to which a person has to marshal the will to move in spite of inertia to stay out of aversion, would we allocate recognition where recognition was deserved?

Maybe, but that is not the way it is right now. Heroic acts that strengthen the existing structures of power are the ones that get the press. Playing to the whims and desires of the rich wins comfort and reward. Yes, there are the breast cancer survivor stories and wild animal attack narratives that get some exposure, but, mainly, acts of courage that fall outside maintaining the status quo are ignored by mainstream media.

The woman who stands against police in riot gear because she believes in peace, or wants a fair wage at a sweat shop, is forgotten, even though she stands in nonviolent resistance as a cop lays into her with a billy club or tear gas.

Do we see the heroism in that?

I wonder where that young man is today, what he thinks about as he gets up, gets dressed, and prepares to head out into a world that never stops staring or turning away in involuntary reflex at surface ugliness. Does he see the nobility of his act beneath the shallow responses?

His is a courage off the charts for me. That is worth remembering, worth pointing out.

The hero of our time may be invisible to all but the most observant. She is there, right in front of us, meeting demons we can only imagine. He is beholden to some principle worth more than vanity, more than ephemeral, irresistible beauty.

Monday, October 14, 2013

When Time is Short

The rocks near In-Ko-Pah on the way to San Diego look to me like sand grains must look to ants in a sand box. The granite boulders  rise in giant cones along the interstate. It is hard not to stare, and the feeling of being small is the perfect state of mind for this trip to visit my son Sean.

He has been in college at the University of San Diego for the past three years, and has invited us over for Parent's Weekend. We will see him for the first time in his usual haunts: his dorm room and role as RA, the climbing gym, where he trains and works with the USD climbing club, the beach where he surfs, the classrooms where he works on his projects in the mechanical engineering program, and in the company of his girlfriend, Mina.

He will graduate this year, so it is important for us to go. Time has a way of doing that, of getting tight toward the end of things.

I am more and more aware that I inhabit a body that is slowly shutting down. It's a visceral knowledge that grows at the edges of my consciousness. The urgency to live because time is limited presses up against my diaphragm. It is insistent.

Once we are over the passes of the rugged coast range east of San Diego, we drop fast into the city. Traffic picks up and the pace of life quickens in the form of new BMWs, Mercedes, Lexuses (Lexi?), that travel in tight formation, tail gating at 80 miles per hour.

My Tucson sensibilities feel slow, limited, and a bit provincial.

Interstate 8 ends near the college and we exit. Sean is waiting for us at his dorm room. He has plans for the weekend. We will climb, go to the beach, eat, meet his girlfriend. But mostly, we will let him show us his life, let him be the tour guide to his world.

I am impressed by his room. He has a kitchen and a bathroom and runs his space well -- dishes in the racks, fridge stocked, TP on the role, towels hanging. There are two broken surf boards behind his couch. Conversation starters, no doubt. There is also the hand-made guitar made in the wood shop, the compressed air engine made in machine shop, the books on a course in genocide (not how to perpetrate, but how atrocities are caused and how questions of ethics run through our behavior or lack thereof). There is a white board with upcoming tasks outlined with dates and priorities. His is a rich, complex, and fast-paced life. The boy is growing up. And he is happy. Big hugs all around.

Sean radiates energy. He is passionate, all-in, on fire. And the feeling is contagious. What is possible takes shape in his orbit. He encourages others to dream.

Man. I have a lot to learn.

We move in, share some food, and begin the process of catching up. Tucson and my other life fades in favor of being here, of seeing things through Sean's eyes.

He makes us power pancakes with bananas in the morning before he takes us to the climbing gym. They are tasty and dense and new to me, like so much else.

I notice a book shelf that is suspended by shelf brackets and string nailed into drywall. I notice it is sagging under the weight. Sean explains that the forces pushing down have to be counter-acted by forces lifting or anchoring. It is a finite element enduring an ongoing moment of stress.

The room is full of the person -- the man -- he is becoming.

At the rock climbing wall, he sets me up on five seven, thinking that it will be manageable. I negotiate about a third of the wall before I freeze at a technical move and fall. I don't have the arms, the hands, the technique, or mental ability to handle the climb. My arms are thick with lactic acid as he lowers me off the climb. He sees, I think, for maybe the first time, my encroaching limitations of age. He and I will have to lower the bar so I can play at the gym. We renegotiate roles.

He is the master, I the neophyte.

And he is a master of the wall, an artist. He has been climbing seriously for seven years and has entered into an elite community of climbing elders.

He shows us some bouldering moves. I notice others at the gym watch in awe. I join them in awe, even though I don't know enough to fully appreciate what I am seeing. The ability to support one's weight relying only on the tips of fingers, the final joint, is not unlike dancers in toe shoes, takes years of practice, conditioning, training. The subtle sensibility necessary to fully appreciate what I am seeing eludes me. To really grasp what is behind his moves, I would have to spend years on the wall.

I do know that, on the wall, I am heavy beyond my strength to support, a new thing for me. What I take for granted that I can do is no longer a measure for actual ability; the brain has not yet registered my decline in things muscular. I guess aging comes as something of a surpise sometimes.

Sean introduces us to his friends and, they too, are residents of worlds I can only imagine. They convey the serenity of self-possession, confidence, proven strength, steady courage. They look straight into my eyes and do not shrink, deviate, or condescend. They are, however, intoxicated by the energy of youth, of imagining the possible, of meeting and mastering physical and intellectual challenges. They are royalty and grow in strength from the love they give to each other.

I touch what I believe to be a dream of humanity. They have opportunity and are all-in, going for it, unfettered by fear or anger, or better, supporting each other as each bumps into fear or other crippling emotion.

I cannot begin to measure the gratitude I feel, the humility, the awe.

I open to all of it.

We enjoy the rest of the day and the weekend with meals, conversations, places, and connections with young, optimistic, unbroken, joyous people who are making the most of their college years. It is a new thing for me, and I pause to wonder at this.

Can it be that such a thing is really possible? I will have to re-frame the boundaries of my imagination, will have let off the brakes, tear down some barriers, sidestep some "not possibles" for that to sink in.

But, when time runs short, such things become possible. Good examples help, and sometime children become teachers. Well, just about everything becomes a teacher if you think about it, open to it.

Thanks Sean. And sorry if I embarrassed you.

Much love,

Thursday, October 10, 2013



"You know I'm a PA, not a doc," She said, over her glasses, pen poised above her clipboard.

"Yeah, but Doctor B. sounds better," I said.

She was finishing a screening for skin cancer. Routine stuff, and I had to be careful. She looked at me sternly and asked about sunscreen. She also asked why I refused to get new briefs. The light and spyglass travelled up and down my back, neck, arms, legs. She was not real happy about my tan lines and keratosis. I had some history -- squamous cell carcinoma, family melanoma, fair skinned, lax with sunscreen -- and had agreed to regular visits to my friendly dermatologist.

"You ever go to E-X-O?" I asked, trying to change the subject. Iwas referring to a new, happening coffee shop downtown, one that was getting lots of buzz. I had never been, but friends had pointed the place out me repeatedly. It came up in conversations that had nothing to do with coffee but that touched on exciting or energized ideas.

She perked up, stood taller, and stared at me. "I own it."

"Do you know anything about the film being shot near there?"

Another jerk back. "Yes, I know the film-maker. His wife is my best friend."

"Well, I  run the workshops that the story they're filming came out of."

"Get outta here!" She said, and gave me a tentative punch on the shoulder. "Get outta here."

"Yeah, I know Troy and the camera guy and some of the crew."

"We had the wrap party at the cafe on Sunday. My band and I played for them."

"No way. What do you play?"

"Upright bass."

"You're too small to play upright."

"But I've got strong hands. I'm a rock climber."

"My son's a rock climber... Name is Sean."

"I know Sean. We work out together."

Now it was my turn. "Get outta here!"

"No, really. He comes to our coffee shop too."

"How come I've never been there?"

"What? Why did you ask me then if I'd been there?"

"I saw you downtown once and EXO just came to me. I don't know why."

"Get outta here. And you can call me Doc."


I wasn't supposed to be there, but I was waiting for a reading to begin at the Poetry Center. It was the only time all year that I had stayed late here, on a Thursday

I was thinking about how hard it had been to get the Daily Wildcat to give some publicity to the prison story and the film that was coming out of it when Leslie and a friend walked in to the Little Chapel office. Leslie picked up a glossy magazine on the table.

"What is this magazine doing here?" Leslie asks with her usual why-the-hell tone.

"Oh, I had a piece published in there and gave the office a copy."

"It is any good."

"It's OK." I say. Leslie flips absently through some of the pages.

"You know Maggie wants to write," says Leslie, pointing at the other young woman sitting in the office.

"Really," I say.

"Yeah, she's into journalism, in the program here."

"Oh... Do you do anything with the Wildcat, the student paper?" I ask her.

Maggie nods. "I'm a reporter, and I'm looking for a story."

"Have you heard about the inmate who wrote a story that is being made into a film?"

She hopped up, walked over, and pulled out a chair, notebook and pen at the ready.

"Give me everything you've got."


J. was never late and today was no exception. Her hair was wet though. She had just finished her workout and the wavy, shining, yellow cascade of it bounced as she walked up to our table. She wore tight, low-cut jeans and a sheer muslin blouse. The weave was loose so her outline shone through. It, like all of her, never stopped moving. She was on fire, lit from within, burning with vision.

Ten years before, her son Ben had died suddenly from an acute case of croup. She had been broken, but turned her grief into a crusade of sorts. She was the Grand Dame of Kindness. Hers was not a flaky, white light and butterflies for those who can afford a nice living kindness. No it was quite the opposite -- a gritty, street-smart kindness that is hard won. She had no time for meaningless fluff.

Both Troy and I stood for a hug.

"It's been a long time," she said, setting down her chai tea.

"I haven't played soccer for quite a while, and I don't see much of your parents now that they live in the Northwest."

"You still writing?" She asked.

"More teaching."

"I loved the poem we read at Ben's memorial service... What was it? 'On the Brink,' or something like that?"

"Long time ago. I don't know, don't even have a copy of it anymore. I lose all that stuff."

"I read the story though -- 'Acts of Kindness' -- and loved it. It's perfect to take into the schools to talk to the kids about learning that there are other ways to respond to trouble."

"We loved it too," said Troy. "So much so that we are making a film. It's really a simple but amazing story. We want it to go big."

"Well, I can help you with the funding," said J. "I have donors lined up right now looking for something like this. If I give them the word, you should have what you need."

"I want this to go to Sundance, to the Academy Awards. We're going to throw everything we have at it," Troy went on.

I sat back and watch the movers and shakers share contacts and strategies. They had energy and knew how to organize, network, make things happen. The two of them were now like a merger of great nation states and the momentum for the project grew.

"You know the kindness is not easy. And when you need it most is when you want to kill somebody. The point is to know that there is another way, that there are different possible outcomes to those crazy, critical, dangerous moments."

We shared about flipping people off on traffic and how that resulted in more flipping and more road rage.

But then there were some others times when we noticed that an apology went a long way, that when we each received one, we brushed off the offense as if it had never happened.

"Hey, I didn't see you back there. Sorry I cut you  off."

"No problem! Have a good one......whuh?? whuh just happened?"

"Yeah, things can completely reverse course, change everything, flip a situation on its head."

"In the film," Troy continues, "the main character enters a struggling skate shop with the intention of stealing a board. Both characters eye each other and it looks like something bad is about to come down. That's the moment. And then, we don't know who, but one of them extends a hand, in a way, and the other responds. The guy in the shop gets a kick out out of helping and the kid gets a board. Then he pays it forward, for a while, til he forgets. That's where he gets caught."

"That sounds exactly like what we are looking for," says J. "I can't wait to hear about this."

"We start shooting in three weeks."

Both of them look at me and I excuse myself.

It's time for me to go to class, to teach.


 He is driving down a busy avenue in central Tucson when it comes on. A local radio show is featuring some writing by state prison inmates. A voice reads one of the stories. It is about a homeless kid who is angry. He can't find a job. He is out of money, has no place to stay, has just had a run-in with some thugs. He is hurt, and desperate. He is in Phoenix in the summer.

The only things he has that offer any relief from his spinning chatter of misery are his CD player and his skateboard. The CD player battery just died, so the kid is practicing tricks, hard. He is flipping, jumping, grinding, and cutting. On one landing, the board breaks.

It is hot, silent, dark.

The film-maker pulls over to listen to the story. It has cast a spell over him. He decides to make a film.

That week, he contacts the radio station, who puts him into contact with the reader, who puts him into contact with the inmate writer. The film-maker and the writer send letters back and forth. They work together on a screen play. The writer will be paid.

He gets released the day filming begins.


"All right guys, your assignment for next week is to write on the topic 'acts of kindness' unless you are working on something else. You need to write something though."

Twelve men, all wearing orange jump suits write down the words of pads of lined paper. The circle, if you could call it that, is made up of broken desks, and the plastic chairs creak against the linoleum floor when the men scoot back.

"Now the idea here, is to tell a story, not just talk about how nice kindness is, or what a bad idea it might be. If you decide to write on this, you need to make a moment in your life come alive with your words. You're going to have to pick some experience and re-create it. Then bring it in next week and read to the group. We'll talk about how to make it better then."

"Right now, right here, I want you to think about a time when kindness showed up in your life, either from you or to you. Anything. Even the smallest thing. Sometimes those are the best things."

Some of the guys look out the window. The Arizona blue sky is blinding if your eyes are not adjusted.

One of the younger guys in the back says "I have an idea for that."

"OK," I say, "What is it?"

He starts out slow, but builds momentum telling us about a time when he was broke, homeless, out of friends, luck, and hope. Then some help was offered and he took it, took it to heart.

The men in the workshop nodded. One of the old timers, a leader, broke the silence. "I hear you bro. You got to go with that. It's good."


The door was open, and I stood there in a quandary. Should I step in to his office and introduce myself or just continue on with my work day. After all, I was just another grad student teacher and he was Pulitzer Prize nominated author. I had admired The Bus to Veracruz for both its lyricism and humor. This guy spoke to me, was good. But he was also busy. Too many people wanted a piece of him.

I don't know what propelled my feet to stand in the doorway or what possessed my mouth to smile and then say "Hey. I was wondering if you had a moment." But they did and I met the gaze of Richard Shelton.

We talked about the desert and about teaching. I told him I had been living in Mexico, was volunteering with the Sanctuary Movement and worked for Pima County Adult Education at the Federal Prison. I had a hard time telling him that I wanted to write. I had a hard time telling anyone, most of all myself, that. Good God, what if he threw me out with a sneer, saying "You know how many people approach me saying they want to write, looking to me as some kind of stepping stone for their petty, dilletante-ish pursuits?!

Instead, he looked at me with a hard, sharp gaze, one that was sizing me up somehow.

"You want to go out to a prison workshop sometime?" he asked.

He pointed at a box full of glossy magazines, copies of Walking Rain Reviews,  and said, "Take one. Let me know what you think."

He has been doing the workshops for over twenty years at that point and continued to do them for another fifteen or so. Men from his workshops have become famous poets, teachers, and activists. I use their writing as texts in the classes at the University of Arizona. 

So, I did take the journal. And we went to the prison. And I worked on my writing with Richard, now Dick.

I am nowhere near the teacher Dick is. I am nowhere near the poet. But I show up. I follow something that I can't explain, but that I know in my bones.

If you asked me why, I would say I do what I do for all the wrong reasons, but that doing so is what matters.

Thank you to all who have connected with me on this crazy Earthwalk. You have given me gifts that neither of us can fully understand, but that live within, through, and around us. Your connections have been a blessing. Now that is something I know.

A Dead End Called Solipsism

Yes, I am going crazy.

I fear that I have begun the long slide into dementia that my mother took before me. I am about the same age she was when her decline began.

It is subtle, just around the edges of my awareness. Fire has broken out on the perimeter of the realm. I can still function, but not so well.

I lose things, can't remember words, forget meetings, don't finish tasks. More people are unhappy with my performance at work. I spill my coffee more often. Conversations lose me. I can't understand the news, Megan's plans for the house in El Morro; my fingers no longer play the pieces I used to play on guitar; I am inappropriate in conversation.

Terror gestates just beneath my consciousness. I lapse into solitude that is my only refuge. More like solipsism, where even the self-talk fails to make sense.

So, yes, I am losing it. Like we all do eventually. And I have to look at things, clearly, directly, fully disclosed.

I have not lived my life. That is the problem. I have not read, have not shown up, have held back, and now have to pay the price or snap in the process. I have not faced my demons. I feel murderous as a result, and want to blame someone else. I want to run and not go quietly. That is one way.

Not such a good way.

The way I really want to enter into my decline is to turn it into beauty, to mindfully record the subtleties of the descent.

So what beauty can come from such a dead-end road, a road that only gets narrower and dimmer?

We will see. We will see.

Inmate B

Like many who come to the workshop, Inmate B saw himself as a bad-ass. He came trailing a reputation for quick kicks tied to a short fuse. From what I heard, it was well-deserved.

He had brought something to read and let me know that he wanted to go first.

After I went through greetings, introductions for  the newbies, announcements, passed out writing pads, pens, a few books, magazines, thesauri, dictionaries, and gave a brief assignment, it was time to read. Inmate B sat up, held his writing pad in front, and adjusted his glasses.

"Forget my name/Forget my face/ Forget my arms/ My strong embrace" and on and on.

Quartets. Rhyming. Self pity. Ugh.

The rest of the guys in the workshop looked to me. They didn't want to say anything.

Uncomfortable silence.

I took an indirect path.

"So, what kind of piece is this?"

"A poem," one man volunteered.

"That's right. What kind of poem?"

"A rhyming verse poem," someone else added.

Inmate B seemed satisfied so far.

"What do you guys think about that form?"

"It's good for Hallmark Cards," another inmate offered, almost apologetically.

"Yes, it's a familiar form for love poems or family occasions, that kind of thing."

"They are usually too sappy and sentimental," a big black inmate said.

"And they feel forced. The words get jammed together and take over what you are trying to say."

Couldn't have said it better.

Inmate B stirred in his chair. I saw his knuckles go white with a strong squeeze. But he took notes.

The inmates began to offer up sharp observations about inverted structures, excessive abstraction, lack of sensory details, vividness of image, and general overload of sentiment.

Inmate B sat still and hard as a stone, except for his pen, which kept moving.

"Anything else?" He said.

"Keep working on it. But try free verse next time," I offered.

I find that free verse elicits more honest emotion, complexity, immediacy, surprise. It sometimes takes a while to stop wanting to be like and sound like Shelly or Longfellow and start sounding like one's self. As my running coach once said, "You can't be anywhere other than where you are, no matter how much you want might want to be."

Inmate B did not return to the workshop for a couple of months, but when he did, he brought a story about moonshine in Kentucky, and his conscription into the family business when he turned eleven. It wasn't perfect, but it resonated with the smells, sights, and language of the Appalachians. I published a revised version of the story in the prison magazine.

Since then, he has compiled a book length collection of stories and free verse poems.

I don't like all of them. I find many of them still bigoted, harsh, and smugly puerile. Others, however, offer a view into white poverty, closed family secrets, stunted opportunity, and a seething anger at institutions or intellectuals.

"I would have gotten mad a few years ago," he said to me recently, after finding a Post It on one his drafts that said "Low Priority. I don't much like this piece."

I had written that as directions to the volunteer typist, and she had forgotten to remove it.

"But now I can take it. I know you eggheads are full of shit." he smiled, a not completely ironic smile.

"It's true," I said. "I didn't like that piece. It is loaded with cliche and pointless, irritating meanness."

"But I keep coming back, don't I?"

" Yes you do. Me too" I said, knowing that pronoun was grammatically wrong, but right for the moment.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Fairy Tales Sometimes Happen

Once upon a time, a young man made some mistakes and had to go to jail. While he was in jail, he thought about these mistakes, about how others had tried to help him, and he decided not to do stupid, mean things anymore.

One day, he saw some other men sitting in a circle and talking about how they saw the world. They talked in ways that helped them tell stories about their lives, what they had seen, felt, and learned.

The young man sat down and listened for a long time. Then he spoke up and told some of his own stories.

In one story, a true one, he was homeless. All he had were some old clothes and a skateboard. He loved that skateboard and learned how to do tricks with it. In fact, the only times he felt happy were when he was working on tricks and doing them better and better.

He was all alone on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, in the summertime one day, practicing his tricks. On this day he was sad and angry because people had been mean to him. He was trying to get rid of his anger by working really hard on his tricks, doing them better and better, until he worked so hard his skateboard broke.

It seemed like the whole world was against him.

But, when he went to a skateboard store, the owner saw that he had no money and a big need for a new skateboard, so he gave the young man one.

The young man did not know how to thank him, but tried to help other people for a while. He did this as long as he remembered that someone had been kind to him. His tricks got better and better. But then he forgot and made the mistakes that put him in jail.

The men in the circle liked the story, and someone later retold the story on the radio.

A film maker heard the story and decided to make it into a movie.

On the same day that the film began, the young man got out of jail.

Other people heard the story and wanted to help tell the story again and again. The young man was paid for the story and a newspaper wanted to interview him.

That movie is being filmed right now in Tucson.

It will tell the story of kindness and what kindness can do to change things. Many people, especially young people, will see the movie. The young man is happy and grateful.

This story is not over. It keeps going. There is a kind of magic that brings people together to warm their hands around the fire made by telling this story. Some say it has lit a candle in cold, lonely hearts. Some say it walks at night, in alleys, downtown, disguised as a smiling custodian, or under the moon, as a singing coyote.

This story lives, and it is very true.

Grace of a Stranger

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Epiphanies and Other Malfunctions

When Robert Jordan and Maria make love for the first time in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway tells us that "the Earth moves out and away from beneath them." I imagine them there, suspended, briefly, in timelessness, utter bliss, clarity, serenity. They both know they are one, mated, born to live and die together.

Writers also talk about a zone, a peak awareness, a something, that happens during intense athletic efforts, times when things just come together in a perfect symphony of grace, calm and beauty. That state is often accompanied by an insight, a realization, or an "understanding." For example, "The Eighty Yard Run," by Irwin Shaw tells of a halfback finding an opening and "for the first time (in his life, it) was not a meaningless confusion of men, sounds, and speed." The main character takes that moment as a sign to live the life of football and all that goes with it.

Others talk about connection to a world larger than the self. Emerson finds his moment walking across a field. He writes "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear... I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." 

Eye ball, yes, and a theory of nature too.

These peak experiences visit randomly, unexpectedly. They may come in moments of intimacy, as with Hemingway, or in physical challenge, or in drug-induced euphorias, or out of nowhere.

They disrupt normal ways of seeing, complacent ways of looking. Often, the brain slips a gear and sees things in a way that it normally does not. The intensity of such focus and insight jumps the track of comfort, dissolves habit. It, in other words, aint always fun, enjoyable, or even nice. But truth is like that, and can get you into trouble. 

One epiphany sent me off into my current line of work.

I got knocked into the next week one time after colliding with a British defender in a soccer game. I chipped a tooth. When I came to, the Muses were talking to me. They told me to get up, put some ice on my head, and write about why stories are so important.

Weird, I know, but true.

Since then, they have been following me around whispering in my ear. Their words have become the driving force of my life.

I teach stories, I live stories, and I fail miserably in the rest of my life because I have become utterly impractical. While other men are out making money or traveling to Europe I am sitting with demons trying to figure out the story line.

Unfortunately, it is not my place to write the stories, become famous, and glide into a life of parties, excesses of whim, and doomed romances. No, I am supposed to facilitate others in the telling their stories. Very hard for the ego. I began my quest with the vision of becoming a poet and ended up a teacher. It has taken me thirty years to begin to come to terms with that fact, now somewhat at peace, if broke, anonymous.

Still, the chatter doesn't stop, even in my sleep.

Another epiphany.

Now, I am waiting for the next delivery from the Divine Celestial Message Board, or whatever it is.

Until then, Ernie, Irwin, and Waldo, help me. It's getting a little crazy in here.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


I thought I saw him the other night, out of the corner of my eye. I know that's impossible because he died three months ago. The man I saw dressed like him -- vest, cowboy boots, disheveled shirt. But more than that, he had the demeanor, the stance, the impish delight at the joke that life is. It is the dead, and how we remember them, after all, who best teach us how to live. He even smiled a gap-toothed smile and winked. I know he was telling me something. It was something I needed to hear. His appearance broadcasted the need to lighten up, teach well, read closely, meet with students, get the prison magazine together, care about my friends, give til it feels good so the hurt can escape. He was talking to me, that dog. It was not yet the message I wanted to hear. I am still too raw, too sad that he has died, has left me here, again, alone. The others, a poet, a lover,  someone, the only one, who saw me, have all gone too. Loss of one taps into the well of loss of others. I want just to be sad for a while. He said no, it's time to move on. There is work, good work, to do. He raised a cup, a sword, and a pen. There are demons to meet, sentences to frame, stories to carve. They will be pathways through the impassible wall, the words that part the waters, that shine a light in the dark chaos. But it is so hard I say. And no one seems to understand or care. He just smiles and says shut up and keep moving and find the right people. He says I know you want to, that on the other side of your wounds, there is a desire to become who you might become. I have shown you he says. Now it's your turn. Find the desire. It will lead you. I tell him about the water, about the serpents, about being lost, about the distractions. You know the way he answers. Don't be afraid of the work or the time or what you might lose. You will be given what you need as you need it. If you stay open and are brave enough to delight in paradox you will see the way. Your grief is a fire that might consume you. Your anger can turn to bitterness. They are traps you have to watch out for. Forgive me. Forgive yourself. You are only alone if you think too hard and look in the wrong places. Place your trust in the silver river that runs through you and all things. Let it carry you. A broken heart is all you need for passage. You have to light a fire and fuel it with your soul.Then the moon rose, the traffic backed up, and I turned to see him head on. Of course, he was not there then, in that light, that need for proof, that striving for some convenient flotsam, something palpable enough to ease the pain.

* This is a tribute to Chris Carroll, friend and mentor.