Saturday, May 24, 2014

Jesus Gets Tired

Jesus sits with his morning tea and bread and thinks about his day.

It will be a long one. Peter has scheduled a talk with the Pharisees after morning prayer and then another free lunch lecture before a wedding, where Jesus will be asked to bless the wine.

Then there are the unexpected encounters, the lepers in the street, the distraught parents with sick children.

Then there are the promoters... Aye. They want to send criers ahead to the next town, to draw bigger crowds. They want to write down versions of the parables and make copies so the stories can spread. Jesus sees greed in their advice, a way to turn his message into silver. They want to meet again after the wedding. 

He looks at his plate and remembers the words about the rich men and their attachments and how difficult it is for them to understand what he means by a kingdom and what it takes to get there. They roll their eyes when he tells them about feeding the hungry and being your sister's keeper.

They will be the ones, of course, who get the power. Jesus rolls his eyes and rubs his temples.

All of it adds up.

People don't seem to understand that working miracles, or even composing parables, takes a lot out of a guy.

Sometimes Jesus would like to just chuck it all and go for an extended hiatus on the shore of the Dead Sea. The water there is very clear, and the night life has a lot to offer.

Most of the fun people gather there to enjoy food, wine, and the tight fitting tunics women wear while strolling on the shore are very pleasing to him.  He sees divinity in the grace and curve of their hips, the firmness of their buttocks.

It's amazing to Jesus that some of the fitter young men actually let waves carry them from from the deep water up to the beach. A few even ride on primitive wooden boards that they fashioned just for that purpose.

Jesus sips at his tea and chews the dry, stale bread. He knows it is good for him. He will need the nourishment to transform water to wine, ordinariness to miracle.

He wonders how he got here, how he went from simple carpenter to Teacher.

It just happened, he says to himself, was part of his genetic destiny.

And he said yes to it.

But there are those times, when he wonders what it would be like to be one of the men or women who seem so happy, who have something he will never have.

Life comes so easy, it seems, to other men, the lucky ones. They are happy just taking care of themselves and their families -- their lovers.

If only he could close his eyes, he thinks, and forget, then he could rest. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What the Hey?

It was one of those days when everything seems to conspire against you. Roads are closed so you have to take the long way; tools are not where they should be; you have piles of work that keep growing; computers, phones, printers go on strike; incompetence is rampant; nothing seems to get done on time or done well.

Those days are a friggin' hassle.

At least that's what it feels like. And it feels that way because things don't go according to expectations or desires or preferences. Those nasty situations fly out of the realm of personal control.


So, yesterday, you have this custom lamp, of great personal significance, that needs a lamp shade. Nowhere on this earth is there a lampshade that you can buy to fit this lamp. You have to make one. Your wife gives you something that is not a lampshade and says, "This looks like a fun project," to which you want to reply in no uncertain terms to the contrary, but you keep your mouth shut and go ponder the problems.

Yes, you will need tools. The tools are far away on another job. And yes, you will need parts. But you don't know what those parts might be. And finally you will need three or four hands to hold all the parts in place while you finally assemble them.

As you consider the lamp, however, you see its Zen qualities, how it was put together with great care by a fine, generous artist. You try and fail to adopt that same Zen approach and attitude. You try again. You put on reading glasses and a head lamp so you can see the tiny parts that need to be disassembled, threaded, re-assembled,  tightened, torqued, and so on.

It takes longer, much longer, than you thought it would. These kinds of jobs tend to progress at their own rate. 

You see that, yes, this is just a situation, and that with a little reflection on how best to see the creativity, craft, and, I am loathe to admit it, love in the work, you find solving the problem satisfying.

You join the human race in the ongoing project of trying to happy while we figure these messes out. What looks like chaos is just another form of what has been in front of us for millennia. You consider that it might have been frustrating to first use fire, to hammer the corners off the first wheel, to capture the forms of a deer on a cave wall.

You see the fruits of sustained focus, effort, and patience. You forget the hassle that work has become. 

Then, quite suddenly and surprisingly, if you are lucky, there is light.

Monday, May 19, 2014

That'll Do

The ski tips danced in the wind as we drove the drafty pick up truck across Nebraska. I liked leaning forward and watching them up there in the November cold. I hoped they didn't fall off. Half of my worldly wealth had gone into those boards, and I needed them to try out my dream of being a ski bum in Colorado.

John S. and I had left our small town in Wisconsin after dark. (Some things can only be done in the dark, and leaving home on a spiritual quest is one of those things. Well, it wasn't exactly spiritual...) We drove south and west across the Mississippi to Dubuque, then to the I-70 across Iowa, and then Nebraska.

I was hoping to see the front range of the Rockies when the sun came up.

John, wrapped in his sleeping bag because the truck had holes in the floorboards, was snoring. The radio didn't work, so I had my thoughts and the roar of the engine to keep me company.

I could see things clearly. I saw that I was in hot pursuit of the writer's life. This life, of course, had to be filled with adventure, hence the mountains and the skis. But it also needed a hefty dose of drug induced inspiration, doomed love affairs, miles of road, a devotion to intense and raw experience rather than discipline or routine. The job of the writer and the artist, as I understood it, was to go the edge, to warm hands at the fire, the live wire of proximity to death.

That seemed like a good idea for a while, but I did not write very much. In one of my crappy jobs, a friend lost his arm in a factory accident. John got tired of traveling and became a money manager. He has a nice life on the coast.

I felt like the last man standing, and it was by the side of a road at night in Texas.

The plan wasn't working all that well.

In fact, I think I burned a few too many brain cells, and got old fast.

Only when I began to spend time writing did any writing actually see the light of day.


Teaching and academic work provided some income when I needed it after getting married and having two sons. It took up my time, and asked me to stretch, to get organized, to get to work on time, be a cog in the machine.

So I steal time now, in the mornings before work. And the writing is still a dream, but it is work too.

That's what they don't tell you in the dream factory of a creative life. Artists have to pay bills, have to make a schedule, have to spend time in front of the keyboard, or the canvas, or whatever the medium might be.

Only then, for me, does the light begin to shine, hard-won realizations take form.

It has taken so long to get here. I only hope that someday it will be enough. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

They Wore Levis

The smells are not the first assault on the senses, but they are the strongest. I almost gag when I board the dusty passenger car on the train that connects Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on the US border.

Over thirty years ago I took this ride, but the faces still come to me. They are handsome faces, young, idealistic, strong, desperate faces. 

Diesel fumes, cilantro, sweat, fried pig skin, and various forms of excrement waft through the car as I sit down next to a short grandmother. She wears her best, freshly-washed print cotton skirt and and has a basket on her lap. She tells me she plans to sell her batch of empanadas to pay for her fare to a small town in the state of Culiacan.

When she realizes I speak Spanish, she relaxes into conversation. She does not say so, but I can see her nervousness at sitting next to a six-foot gringo with a beat-up back pack. I don't have the polish of a drug dealer or the hungry hustle of a smuggler. I look just a bit too dumb to be a coyote, someone who will help swimmers cross the Rio Grande. I can see her conclusion that I am harmless enough. All the other seats are taken. Late arrivals are already standing.

Plus I buy her first empanada. It's good. She asks why I am traveling second class when every other gringo she has ever seen travels first class or flies or has his or her own vehicle.

It's complicated, I tell her. I have been teaching in Mexico for over a year and can't afford anything better than second class.

She seems happy with that, but I can see that she thinks I am lazy or insane.

The trip takes almost three days. The train stops at every podunk platform in the middle of nowhere for over a thousand miles.

At one, I see some young men in tight fitting Levis hug relatives before boarding. They are wearing clothes that it took them months of work to afford and the quality contrasts with the home-spun, worn-out garments of those staying home.

I know they are going to "La Frontera," the border.

When they look for seats, they see me, and we share a booth of two facing bench seats.

For the next twenty hours we talk, drink bad beer, smoke, and tell stories. They are nervous about going north and want to know everything.

Something like rapture fills them when I tell them I have a motorcycle, a 750 cc crotch rocket that I bought before I went to Mexico. They want to know all about wages, work schedules, apartment rents, prices of used cars, food, clothes.

Things I take for granted, like the university degree I earned, the confidence to travel, the trust that I will not be jailed by a capricious cop, all amaze these guys.

We want the same things, and talk about work, women, music, athletic prowess, politics. I have seen more of Mexico than they have, but they know the places: pyramids in Yucatan, waterfalls in the jungle of Chiapas, bikinis in Acapulco, the snow caps of Pico Orizaba and Popocatapetl, the enormity of El Distrito Federal, Mexico City, on the biggest cities on Earth.

That I am able to do what I want, more or less, is incredible to them. "You want to visit Mexico?" they ask.

The power of their desires, the imperative to live, all drive them. And they have no choice but to leave. "No hay trabajo," they all say. They will not have a life, won't be able to support a wife or family, won't eat, if they stay.

We want the tools to build a life. I see in them myself. We share human needs. We are part of the same breaking wave that is humanity trying to figure out how to be happy.

But we keep the talk small, immediate. 

"La mejor ropa del mundo," the best clothes in the world, one of them says pointing at his used Levis.

The word I remember from that night is "macizo," which means solid, strong, and draws to mind a rock, a stone face of massive mountain. It is the rock they will embody as they move forward into the unknown. 

We get into Laredo just at dawn.

We are exhausted, a bit hung-over, and need a bath.

We stand for a few minutes in front of the train station and say goodbye. I give them contact information of my parents in Wisconsin. I have no place of my own to go on the other side, and this is the time before cell phones.

We embrace man hugs and shake hands before taking different paths. I go to gate, where I will show my passport, flash my gringo smile, talk the language of membership, create a communion of shared nationhood.

They will find a place to wait. Then, when it is dark enough, they will find a way through the fence, hold their precious Levis over their heads, dry, and walk the Big River, Rio Grande. Then they will run, under the cover of night, into the embrace of fate.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Breakfast With Sigmund

He looked even smaller than the pictures I had seen of him, but as soon as he sat down, I could see the intensity in his eyes.

"Thanks for meeting me," I said. "It must be strange for you to come back from oblivion for asiago cheese bagels and chai tea."

"Not at all. I do it often, usually when men feel the decline," he said.

"Just men?" I asked.

"You'd be surprised. I keep studying, even though I am gone. I see more than I used to. Women are no longer neurotic about being 'non-men,' if you know what I mean. That penis envy stuff is so last century. In many ways, women are further evolved than men, but they still have their fears, their wounds... " He looked at me through those ancient, round, pince nez glasses.

After a painfully pregnant pause, he continued. "Men still worry more about performance and control, the whole 'large and in charge' thing. You, for example, might feel that a rush of attraction might be the last one you ever feel, so you hang onto it, cherish it. It's not just sex; it's the intoxication of young love. You are on the brink on darkness, you think, and you are afraid."

"Well, I hate to say it, but when that goes, what's left?"

"You will see. Eros can take many forms."

"But I like this form. It's what I know, what I have learned to value above all else. I mean I can handle almost anything as long I know there is sex in there somewhere. It's what makes living worthwhile. The DNA needs to know it's still viable or it will just give up."

"Eros is also about surrender to creative work. Your sexual energy is ready to take different forms."

"What about all those young, beautiful women walking around campus with clothes cut to reveal silky, intimate skin?"

"Yes, that is the trigger."

"But how do I make the jump from wanting skin to writing or painting or some other art?"

"Grieve your losses. Embrace and share your gifts."

"Easier said than done."

"Exactly. Why do you see so many old men chasing younger women? They are afraid of pain, and, of course, really, joy."

"Yeah, but you did not succeed so well."

"Again, you'd be surprised. It takes work to find erotic release in art and intellect. Confinement, tedium, and hopelessness helps. And yes, I don't have a body, so I can speak freely."

"The desires seem to get stronger."

"Things do get worse before they get better, if they get better."

"You are pretty harsh."

"That's what they say."

"So, that's it? That's the work?"

He smiles at me through his gray goatee. He slathers pink salmon spread on his bagel, never taking his eyes off me. The smell of the yeast, the melted butter, the salmon, the rich fat of the cheese gathers like an aromatic cloud over the table. He relishes the prospect, and then sinks his teeth into the high gluten heart of the bagel. His eyes say much about pleasure, about earthly delight. And they radiate intelligence, knowledge, years of reading, long days of work, writing, synthesizing. They straddle two worlds, united by their opposition, urgent in the scarcity of time. 

"Not for me to decide," he says. "Can't have the best of one without the other."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dreaming the Day

He wakes when the cat touches his cheek with her paw. She wants the bedroom door opened. She knows he will give her food even though it is 3:00 AM.

He obliges and returns to bed. In a few minutes, she does too, now full and sleepy.

As the cat snores, he dreams about his day.

Before leaving the house, he will fill the fountain, the hummingbird feeder, check the gates so javelina don't pillage the garden. The swamp cooler should be turned on too.

Today is the last class for his first-year course. He will get bagels to mark the occasion. They will eat while they workshop the final portfolio. One student said he would bring root beer floats; another juice. They have become a community of sorts, in spite of the big, indifferent, anonymous assembly line that big universities can be. It will be chaotic, but that is part of the day, part of the time of year, part of this time of life.

After the class he will meet with the director to discuss his annual review. He doesn't look forward to that. He knows he has not been as engaged as he might be with the bureaucratic chores of academic work at a university -- the teaching, yes, he is serious about, but the paperwork... The review will likely not be pretty in that area.

He wonders if he should ask for forgiveness. He sees his shirking as a bit of a misdeed, somewhat less than ethical behavior. Should one ask for forgiveness when he or she chooses work that falls outside the purview of job description? He lets the question go.

The window begins to lighten. It must be almost 4:30. Time to get up soon.

After the conference with his boss, he will grade papers and plan tomorrow's classes. Over lunch he might take a bike ride to the edge of the city, but the wind will be blowing hard. No matter. The bike will roll, will carry him to the hills, its dance of physics, balance, gyroscopic effect seductive. It is one the great earthly delights, and he is addicted to union of body and machine. It gives him pleasure.

There's a red flag warning posted for late morning and the rest of the day. Fires. Fires. The drought spells apocalypse for the desert unless rain comes in May or June. Not likely.

Then there is a potluck for the adjunct lecturers. He will bring something easy, like crackers and cream cheese and sliced salmon.

Then he will do a reading, play some music, wander off on the ideas that drive his actions -- wildness, stories, surrender. He will pack the guitar, a drum, and some notes for the reading. He will print out some recent work that is still rough but carries fresh excitement.

None of his themes is a popular topic, but it's what he has gleaned from years of teaching, writing and reading. He has straddled the line between art and politics, poetry and rhetoric, aesthetic and academic for years, never being able to decide. Or maybe he decided by not deciding. Householding made the decisions of how to spend time for him.

Now, he is near the end of a career that some might call ne'er do well, also ran, or even failure.

He knows better, most of the time.

One of the inmates from the prison writing workshops, who has been recently released, might join him at the reading. After drumming and playing guitar and reading it will be time to go home, now late.

On the way home, he will think about which direction his life might take from here. He knows that life is an ongoing fork in the path that just keeps presenting itself. This ongoing dilemma buzzes now with acuteness. He sees leanness down one path, more comfort down the other. He knows his heart creates problems and challenges when he listens to it.

After he drops off his friend, he will go home to sleep and to dream what might be.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Blue Note

Windy today. Really windy. Forty-miles-an-hour blowing dust windy.

A friend used to say that wind is really spirit in motion. It's a sign of change, of turbulence, of mingling of cold and warm, the result of a physical law that wants to equalize, to find stasis.

It's out of the east, the direction of new beginnings, some might say.

Whatever it is, the wind reflects my mood these days.

There are big changes coming. Megan has a job in New Mexico, starting in two months. A house needs plumbing, electricity, insulation, drywall, fixtures, appliances. My father is getting old and I need to visit. Our house in Tucson needs to be made ready to sublet. I need to think about money, work, marriage, family, and, of course, my cat -- Simone.

Big stuff and little stuff. It's all hard to juggle, and I just can't seem to get a handle on it. Only the blues seem to both capture the mood and give me the urge to dance with it.

The boundary between me and the unknown is just over the next hill of days. I will leave the land I know -- teaching, advising, wandering the halls of the Modern Languages Building and step into new terrain. I will soon let go of familiar days and duties and start something new.

My routines will be disrupted. I won't know what I am doing from moment to moment because it is all strange. It is time to surrender. Place, friends, work, possessions, habits, position -- all of it is about vanish. As the last days approach, there are things I should be doing that I am not.

The fear of the unknown wakes me, pulses through me, lives in my veins as I move through these transition days. It paralyzes my thinking; I just can't seem to marshal the thoughts and plan and then act.

Even the preparations for a weekend camping trip leave me cold and catatonic, in denial.

It doesn't help that others notice this and point it out.

I appreciate the concern though.

The bigger picture escapes me. The arc of my life narrative is about to take a hard turn. I need my left brain to help me navigate.

Just saying. 

Time to go to the woods and howl.