Sunday, December 10, 2017

Turnover


Attrition has struck the workshops at the Rincon Unit. Handpoet, Sonny, Champ, Bell, Psycho and others have all been moved off the yard, leaving the workshops thin and sparse. Where before fifteen to twenty men sat in the circle, now there are four. These transitions take a toll in terms of adjusting to the chemistry of the new men. Lovett and Stilo are still coming, so there is that continuity. But the pages of writing left by the men who have moved on still speak their voices. Yesterday I stood and read a piece by Handopoet, he who began the tradition of standing to read. The new guys just looked at me and listened, a little amused. This is an awkward time, but the personalities of the men in the workshops will fill in the gaps left by those who have moved on. The spirit of poetry carries on as long as we show up and invite it in.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

What's in a Cell?


Some say that a man (or woman) in a cell needs to be contained. Others say punished; hard time will keep him from coming back. Labels like predator, sociopath, felon, criminal, or worse often fall into the mix. The story then reveals what we think we should do about these people out there, locked up. Policy dictates deprivation, humiliation, degradation, dehumanization. Don't let them have books, tools, classes, rights, or any kind of opportunity. Or, given another scenario, they might be human beings who committed a crime, made mistakes, stupid decisions. If they have to do the time, why not make the time count for something? Why not work on changing whatever it was that contributed to their being in prison in the first place? Most inmates are where they are, in part, because of trauma of some kind. Poverty, violence, broken families, and drug abuse all contribute to time spent in prison. If inmates experience more trauma in prison, then they will likely return to what they already know when they get out. The worse we treat them, the more likely they will be back. That doesn't work. What's in a cell is a work in progress, a malleable human being, that can learn.  We could send them to school, give them job and business training, opportunities for creative expression, chances to learn how to cooperate and work together, or connect with families. Respect, trust, and skills can all contribute to men giving all that back and more if they get to practice. Practice makes better, if not perfect, no? 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Starting Over


It looks like the prison book isn't working. Publishers have passed on it; reviewers have offered up a big "eh," and it sits there, interesting only to yours truly. Now, I could just drop it and move on. But that would make too much sense. The path of the upper Midwest worker boy too dumb to quit is one of persistence to the finish line, even if that line keeps getting pushed back. Either I will get there or I will expire. So, back to the drawing board. Time to begin again (after all the grading and paperwork of the semester, of course). Time to drop the resistance and re-imagine the project, think as a reader, find the story waiting in the mess of it all.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Before Gravity Takes Hold


Things are winding down for the semester. Classes are over; students are writing final papers; the days are short and nights are long. For all of that, I am grateful. I need a break to mull over what is going to happen over the next year. Let's just say the next chapter of this crazy life has not been drafted and has no plot line, no setting, and an unclear theme. I don't know if this is about realizing life-long dreams of writing or if it is a slow fade into darkness. Maybe a bit of both. I do know that I have stepped off the cliff of work, like Wile E. Coyote in the moment before he plummets into the abyss after realizing he is standing on thin air. The is no there there anymore. Just the facts. If my future is one of a fade into fog, some big decisions need to me made. But that will have to wait for now. I just need to get through the grading of this semester and survive the spring. Then it's all about looking down for something to hang onto. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Dream Day


The morning promised rain by afternoon, though none was in the forecast. I stood on the corner watching for lost students. Our class was going to meet at the Little Chapel, a special place, a sweet setting, one that would put them on stage, in front of an audience, where students would present their community projects; those projects will address some issue related to incarceration. We had read memoirs: A Place to Stand, Writing My Wrongs, Beyond Desert Walls: Essays From Prison, Crossing the Yard, A Case For Freedom, and others. We had written, workshopped, reflected, argued, and laughed. It had been a wild, confusing semester, one in which I did not know sometimes what I was going to do in class until I stood there in front of living, curious, beautiful people. This assignment to write a proposal for a community project had stretched me in new ways. So there I was, standing on a corner, looking for my lost students, waiting for rain, feeling the cool December Arizona breeze, nervous about how it would go -- this new thing. When it was time, I turned and went to our room, the one where I would listen to what these lovely young people had dreamed up, what they imagined as a new possibility. It was time to enjoy. The first drops fell, tentative at first, then steadily, with a smell of water, of creosote.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

It's up to Art


A line of corrections officers marched across the yard, shotguns and automatic rifles held at the ready while I waited in no man's land for the lock to snap and the gate to swing open. This was a drill, but the ammo was live and the riot gear ready. Bad food, price gouging of commissary goods, exploitative pay for prison work, and the big stuff like loss of voting rights and social invisibility have all contributed to inmate anger. It builds up to a boiling point. A man in the workshops assaulted an officer. The details, as told by inmate witnesses, involved an argument over hanging up a phone call. The inmate was talking to his mother and had some minutes left on the call. The officer wanted him to hang up. The inmate asked to use up his allotted time. The officer pressed his order and took the phone. The inmate then cursed at the officer, a struggle over the phone followed, a radio was smashed, and the inmate was sent to the hole. The phone hung on its cord, transmitting the sounds of struggle to the mother. The trigger for the assault was the phone call, but years of disrespect and humiliation had been subjects of this inmate's writing. He saw his place in the web of inequalities clearly. The spark has been struck.Tension fills the yard, and the workshops are under scrutiny. The men want to write. They want to write stories, letters, editorials; they want to bear witness. It seems up to art to turn the machine of a the prison system out of control toward something that corrects and rehabilitates rather than deprives and punishes. If not art, then what?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Sustainability


This November was the warmest on record, a month in the warmest year, which was one of the three warmest years, all of them in the last four years. No pattern there if you listen to the deniers. And the polluters need more more freedom to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, tax cuts too. And rich people need more money. And people of color need to be less uppity. And poor people should just take care of their health without insurance. Oh, and resources will last forever. If you have anything to say you should just tweet. Don't listen or read or compromise. That's all loser behavior. Shortcuts, deal making, and getting more and more and more is the way to go, for sure. If you feel somehow uneasy about this, get a comb-over and beat up anyone who says otherwise. That'll work. We're good.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Lookin' Good


A high school that will not be named became famous for how well it prepared its students for college. All of the graduating class not only earned diplomas but was admitted into some form of higher education. After a bit of scrutiny, however, it turned out that administrators had cooked the attendance records to allow students (about half of the class) to pass in spite of excessive absence and missing academic work. Many of the seniors, according to teachers, couldn't even read or write. Now what does this mean? Well, it means that you can look good in the eyes of a world that doesn't peer too deeply into what's really going on and come out smelling pretty good, sweet even,  saying all the right things, with laurels on your brow for having made yourself look so fine.

The Cup and the Towel


The towel is waiting there, a bit dusty from waiting so long in the same spot, and wrinkled from the cat using it for her afternoon naps, but it is ready and will work for what I need it to do. I don't want to pick it up, much less throw it in, but the signs all point to the need to do so. The results from this small action will ripple out for years into the rest of the chapters of this crazy life, the ones that lead to the end of the story. I am not too proud to admit I am scared. I am losing what I thought was mine for much longer than it will last. The future is both empty and thick with resistance, like a heavy curtain that I have to part in order to pass through. But pass through I must because the time is now and the conditions irrefutable. I want to step back -- put it off for a few more days, weeks, months -- away from the cup that is being passed to me, to refuse to drink from my destiny. A lot of good that would do. It follows me, is always there, rising to my lips. Time to grab the towel, take a deep breath, and open wide, do the deed.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

My Worst Semester Ever


It had to happen sometime. The perfect storm of early morning class, high levels of student apathy, family issues, health issues, writing anxiety, party-hearty ethos of modern university culture, and just plain dull curriculum have all added up to almost 30% of my students flunking. Never, and I repeat, never, have I had such a high rate of failure in a writing class. The students are failing because they have not turned in their work. A big, fat zero has filled many of the slots on the online grading spreadsheet. Now, you might find yourself asking Why did this happen? And I would be glad to speculate but have to confess that I have no easy answers. I am very willing to acknowledge that I likely am part of the big equation that will explain the dearth of performance and elan in this class. It might be bad luck. It might be the stress of money that high tuition creates. It might be the toxic political climate that undervalues reasoned communication. It could also be a symptom of digital brain wiring meeting the need to sustain a focus. It might be a combination of variables that I have to identify or consider. And, like I said, the curriculum, as corporate textbook, is dull as door knobs. I add some spice to that, of course, but that text is enough to make my eyes roll back in my head, and I LIKE this stuff. Also the emphasis on teaching rhetoric seems to bog down discussions. I don't think that an over-emphasis on teaching about writing -- purpose, audience, subject, situation -- necessarily improves writing. Writing and getting feedback about things writers care about improves writing. We don't work on writing as much as we talk about what motivates and shapes expression in general and writing in particular. Abstraction has squeezed out practice. But none of this explains why so many of my young, healthy, smart, impressionable men and women, who, in their first college semester, are going to crash and burn.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Burly Man Meets Cyber Monday


He was a man's man: built like a fire plug, thick in bicep and calf, chiseled jaw, razor sharp gaze. But he carried himself lightly, like a welter-weight boxer. The morning was crisp on this last Monday before December, Cyber Monday, and it was time to think about shopping, -- online -- powered by caffeine. He had worked hard serving the public and had money to burn. His belt was heavy with the tools of his trade: Tazer, pistol, flashlight, radio, hand cuffs, I-Phone 8. His face was young and smooth and easy with a smile; he was the new man, a man who oozed security, calm, digital prowess: he was a consumer. The barista stood on tip-toe, poised, waiting to take his order, her face turned up to the shining brilliance of him standing there in the morning sun. She had to shield her eyes or move into the shadow he cast. What was it going to be? A bullet-proof?  A triple shot black-eye? A dark-roast Americano? Surely something powerful to carry him through this long day of spending. The cafe got very quiet in the pause before he spoke. He let the moment gain weight, the gravity crushing every sound other than the soft music pumping through the speakers, an indie song of longing, for something new, in a box, with an Amazon swoosh. He drew in a breath as the rest of the cafe breathed with him in a collective gasp. He extended his phone to zap the register and make his purchase, the first of many, the one that would fuel the day. The words came slow and deep: "Pumpkin-spice skinny latte, please."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Dems Da Facts, Or, Thinking About the Book


If it's going to work, it's got to cast a spell. You know that. But you forget. You think that pounding them with unpleasant reality will somehow pull them in, make them want to go on, work some kind of alchemy through logic. Well, maybe the left-brainers or masochists will fall for that. But you know that most humans want you to tell them a story, the kind of story that suspends the here and now in a way that makes the here and now even more lovely, more heart-breaking, more heightened. A deeper blue. That's a hard road to go though. It asks of you a kind of love and listening and craft, a kind of work that changes the storyteller as much as those who listen. You must offer up the best of yourself and give it away to find the living between that is waiting there in the space separating you from the beloved Thou. It is what you most love and what you most fear you cannot do.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Blessed


My ear has gotten better just as my hearing begins to go bad. Words that ring true come through more clearly, and sentimentality clangs off key. I can tell resonance in the first few syllables, voice in a phrase, vision in a sentence. Now, this might seem like a good thing, but such quality of speech and text is in very short supply these days, so I cringe at most of what counts for communication. It's not about "grammar," which is what people usually think when I try to explain my affliction. I have worked so hard to get here, just as the quality of language falls over the cliff of what people strive for. Blessed or cursed, I am not so sure.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Day Everything Went Right


I rose early, in the dark, hung out with Simone the cat, and then went to my little cafe. The barista gave me a free shot of espresso and told me good jokes. I sat down to check my phone and to brood over my life when I saw a text that offered me a deal on a new/used guitar for Sean, whose guitar had been stolen while he was in the Peace Corps. I replied and met the guy and got the gitty-box sweet deal -- all before sunrise. I then returned to the cafe and wrote a good poem about love and loss. I decided not to go to work. That sore spot in my life needed a break on this day before Thanksgiving. So I had time for a bike ride with some wonderful friends who plied me with kindness and more coffee. We rode fifty sun-soaked, breezy, heart-felt miles. When I got home I took Sean to get a new driver's license. The lines were short and quick and painless, though he did flunk his motorcycle test. No matter. We went to the guitar shop and picked up new strings, capo, and oil for the finger board. I got a shot of espresso to keep the parade moving. We then went to get provisions for Thanksgiving cooking. The gas pumps at Costco were crowded, with lines extending back three cars deep, but an employee motioned me over to an empty pull-through just as he removed a pylon and pointed to an open pump. We breezed through before finding the best parking spot in the place. Then we filled our cart with squash and pies and beer with the help of son Kyle who was working the busy shift. Hot dogs, brisket barbecue, and Coke followed as we watched Kyle work the front end. He has filled out into a statuesque physique not unlike that of a Greek god. We drove home, put on new guitar strings, drank some cold, dark beer, and made a tasty dinner. I floated off to sleep just after Megan slipped into bed and had her way with me. Tough to be such a boy toy. As I sit here with a hot coffee and purring cat the morning after, I give thanks. I give thanks for sons who are growing into men, for women with dirty minds, for creatures that keep us company, for the music being made as life slides by. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Neighbors (Brainstorm For a Fictional Character)


He is a pot-bellied parasite who preys on gullible patrons and benefactors. He plays to their emotions, and presents himself as their friend and savior. He does nice things once in a while to look good, talks the talk of recovery, of AA meetings, but carries a sharp knife hidden in his sock, ready to stick them in the back if they complain or see him for what he really is. They do him favors: buy him vehicles, pay his debts, cut him slack, make connections for him to exploit. His mask is the sweet victim, an "artiste," the one on a path to purity and truth. He is a sham, a false prophet, and he lives next door.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Homecoming


He was lean, work-hardened, weathered, tired from the long journey, and wearing a shirt woven by a woman in the tribe he was working with along the cordillera in Panama. His toenails were rough and broken and his feet wide, like those of the men of the tribe, the ones who wore only sandals if they wore shoes of any kind (when not wearing the rubber snake boots for cutting monte). A bright blue Peace Corps cap gave him the look of someone part of something, the logo conveying a friendly authority. The new cat carrier held one of his treasures from two years of service: a likeable, gregarious, stray cat with a heart shape on his flank. The cat, Wilson, named after the famous volleyball in Castaway, seemed glad to meet the reception crew gathered at the base of the stairs at the airport. Sean and Wilson had caught us off guard, having arrived twenty minutes early. We improvised our rowdy performance of homecoming. I ran the applause clackers; Kemper displayed his hairy cleavage; Emily rocked her Mormon mission sign; Kyle offered up the hundred-ounce Big Gulp and Twinkie; Megan put on her cat mask, while the rest of us did our little performance. It flopped, but that didn't matter. Explanations of the silly signs could come later. It was time to embrace, to celebrate, to gaze into the eyes of a freshly minted man, an open, human, work-in-progress; It was time to witness the alchemical change radiating from this person I used to know as a child, to honor his undertaking the journey of compassion and action -- all while catching a wild, rogue wave of joy.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wooing the Patient Editor


Let's say it is a she, that "it" being a part of you that you sent away long ago. Let's say she wears brainy glasses, has long hair, is good with numbers. The big thing though, is that she is patient, takes things a step at a time. Why she left doesn't matter any more, but you have been paying the price ever since. You need her now. So, it's time to set out some hot buttered bread, a fillet of grilled salmon, and a nice glass of wine -- all presented with some thought and care, especially the wine glass. It has to be spotless. Then wait for her to detect the call you sent out. Watch the woods for a sign of her. Don't look her in the eye if she steps toward you. She will climb up out of shadow, pen tucked behind her ear. She will then examine and test you. You have to show you are ready and worthy. No longer afraid. One word, sentence, section, chapter at a time. Get out the fine-toothed comb. You have work to do. Hope and pray she comes.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Curriculum


Your lesson is a hard one. It involves stepping back from what you have learned to crave: recognition, title, achievement, getting the golden ring. You will likely burn with humiliation until you learn. You will have to treat the poisons of envy, comparison, and hunger for power or be hounded by them. It is written. Yours is not the chance to outgrow the problem of too much. Rather, yours is the work of detachment, of doing what you know you have to do, even if the outcome gives you nothing but obscurity and want. Further, you learn not to blame or to take credit. You have to extract the hooks of deserve. But, yes, act you must. You may want to simper on the sidelines and lament your fate. You may even say you want out in a big way. That is the demon you must next meet. Here he comes now. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

In a Word


This just in: Money makes things happen. Fame earns you more fame. It's more about recognition than merit. Hard work won't necessarily get you anything. We want to believe it will all work out. But it doesn't. Most doors never open. Time runs out. Games end. Obscurity is your reward for taking the dangerous path, the one on which you bet everything, only to have the marble drop in the slot that says you missed your turn. Oh well, there's next time. Or not. Feel the burn. Pick yourself up. Wring beauty from the train wreck, wine from water. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Zoom In


The answer lies in pouring the gold of your attention onto what is right there in front of you. It is not waiting at the end of your work day (though the prospect of that and the rising moon is very nice to contemplate), nor does it hunker down in the pleasure or pain of a memory screened for the benefit of your distraction. No, I am sorry and delighted to say that your peace warms you in the scarf you have wrapped around your neck on this chilled, November morning, tickling lightly the tender spot under your chin. It might even be scratchy once in a while, waiting, as it does, for you to join the buffet your senses serve up for the benefit of you, tirelessly serving, patiently waiting for you to take your place at the table.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

To Whom Are You Speaking?


As you scribble away down there in the furnace room of your solitude, to whom do you sing? Is it the lovers that got away, that left you weeping and broken on the sidewalk of your twenty-something fear? Well, yes. And no. Of course they sparked the kindling of your desires and you followed that flame to its logical and less than logical conclusions. You drove your little motor cycle into the winds and mountains with visions of those fleshy secrets, hounded by your hormones. So yes, it is they. But, in reality, they are no longer listening, so who is it that does? It is they you have not yet met, the ones who wait in the future you are composing as you lean into your love. So, you don't know them, but if they find your words, sometime out there in the days to come, they will know you for what you held to be true, the words you spoke with the deepest blue, the words born of a running river present in all things, but also the actions you took to deliver that love to a world hungry and tormented. It was the ones you served, the ones you knew only because you turned beauty into an outstretched hand. 

A Match to a Sleeping Heart


It is the sun mainly. But roasting Hatch green chiles too. Cool morning air rushing over bare arms and legs might have something to do with it also. And then there are the stars, up there in the inky depths, sending little daggers of crystal beauty as you lie sleeping curled and tangled in the legs and dark mysteries of the beloved. The thrill of silky skin has a fire all its own. Yet, space is the kicker, the thing that really slays you. The space that you get to fill in with all the yearning that burns down there in the deep recesses of you. That is what lit the flame under the heart of you. You don't really know what to do with that, but you are goaded by that desire to do something. In the old days, you would snuff it out like you extinguish a candle. The desire was so strong it hurt and you could never have what you wanted. You still can't have it because desire burns now for its own sake, not for the consummation or possession. You have learned not to quench the urges puling you in and out. Now it is the mandate to pull out from the guts of your fire the gift you want to leave for those who are left behind when you are gone, for the answer to a call that beckons you right here right now. It will never be perfect this gift you offer, but you have to reach into your black bag of sorrow and pull out the secrets anyway. Then you hold them in the light, as they drip with the messy juices of birth. You squint at the light of them, shed tears of joy for having surrendered, as you bathe in the brilliance, the blinding intensity of that blue burning light.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Joy Like Free Running Waters Or Why Mountain Biking Should Be a Controlled Substance


The reasons not to ran in front of my awareness like credits after a movie: too old, too tired, not fit, too busy, it's risky, other things are more important. But I kept rolling out toward the trail-head. My mind spun with the the tasks waiting for me in the coming week: teacher's meeting tomorrow, curriculum to write, papers to grade, bills to pay, people to call, car appointment for body work, leave letter to submit. The litany rolled along, soundtrack now stale. The house has emptied. I'm alone watching the credits scroll down the screen of my attention as I turn off the highway and head for the parking lot where I will leave the car and pedal off into a sunlit, rock-strewn, twisty desert. After the first mile or so, the nattering brain dies down and I slip into a zone of watching, sweating, and divining for the smoothest line through the gauntlet of boulders set in my path. Fluid motion glides over, through, and down. Joy of water falling down through rocks breaks into a smile. It leans into the next turn and we fly, taken now by the gravitational tug of an unwinding surprise.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Mind Warp


The Supreme Leader, or whatever the official title is, of China, and President Trump represent the two warring factions of the Cold War; and yet they met each other like old buddies on the recent Trump trip to Asia. Communist and capitalist, in the expensive suits of Western  power brokers chit chatted over bottom lines and ways to fleece their workers.The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, out capitalisted Trump in about every way. He argued for more open markets, global movement of people and goods. Trump said he understood but complained about unfair trade conditions. Wah! The capitalist outdone by the socialist/industrialist just won't sit right in my old-fashioned little brain. I guess this is the beginning of the tilt of power toward the East, the decline and rise of empires, the taste of one's own medicine gone just a bit sour.

Teaching As Bronc Busting


You walk into class with only a vague idea of what you are going to do. Specifically, you are beginning a new unit that you have never taught before, one for which you have no curriculum, one you believe in but have trouble wrapping around yourself. The course is a genre study of prison writing, you are asking students to imagine a future in which men and women will stay out of prison. You are asking that they apply the work of the course to what they believe themselves, to what they might be able to do, to some specific action that might result in real, if modest, change, all in the form of a community project proposal.The class has looked at the past through reflective narratives on how they understand prison and the criminal industrial complex. Then they look at the present, what they are reading and incorporating from books, articles, and discussion. But now they look ahead and will take on the task of creating a different future, a different possibility. It is what the books ask, what the world asks, what the society needs. Yes, it is time to call on the imagination and the intellect to create something different than what we have. This must grow out of passion, belief, conviction and must take form in plans of action. Writing can do this if contained in a community of shared vision and support. You are betting your butt on it. Onward, into the great unknown, you say. Pick up your pen. Plot out the hunches that are banging on the hatch down there in the ethers of what might be. You grip the strap on the saddle just before the gate swings open and you take your shot at winning the big one. 

November Undoing


It begins there, subtle as a stone, quiet as a sleeping fawn. Another year slides toward completion; another day creeps over the ridge to the east, coming to you with all the trust and affection of a lover. Soon she will surround you with light, beloved, and she will ask you what you want. Do not be afraid. But pull from you your secrets, the jewels you have kept hidden for so long. You know there is no longer any reason to keep them under cover. You think you might lose something if you bring them into the light, but the truth is that you gain what you have longed for all these years staying safe. As you plunge into the coming day, your edges dissolve. You are held. The new day will ask much as you lean forward into your undoing, into baby steps. Soon, you will find your balance and you will take flight, trailing streamers joy born of surrender.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

That Someday Is Now


Might be lack of sleep, or too much caffeine, or a misfire of neurons. Whatever it is has pulled the plug on normal and sent you spinning into awe. All you are doing is walking down the hall, the one where your department office is when -- Poof! -- your senses are on fire. The beige everything is somehow fresh and pulsing with energy. Whoa! You want out of this, of course. It's a bit much to see things as they are when you have to go meet your freshman English class in ten minutes. Tough luck, chump. It you're going to live your life, you have to do it now. Yes, you will fulfill your commitments, or you will change them, but you know that the time has come. Start sorting through the flotsam you have acquired for not knowing any better. It's time to move on. The fence holding you back has dissolved, leaving only emptiness where it once stood. You have been invisible for so long that no one will know you are gone. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Taste of Salt


His orange t-shirt was pulled up to his eyes, and those dark eyes were wet with tears. The tattooed dots above his eyebrows betrayed his identity. The men in the workshop were quiet. If anyone so much as breathed a comment about his shirt or the tears, the man could spring into a fierce and physical rain of blows. No worries there. The work had spun its spell and left nothing but respect. He had read a long piece about the bitterness of being forgotten, invisible, silent, and, in his words, a ghost. The piece detailed mail call and his ongoing hope that there would be a letter, from someone. Anyone. An old friend, a close relative, a distant relative, a stranger. But they never come. That isolation haunts him. He paces the cell one, two in the morning. Wants to hurt someone, hurt himself. Give up. Take the pill. The bitter one. The one that will turn him to stone, to a pillar of salt. Stinking, bitter salt. But he doesn't. Instead, he lances the abscess with a pen and lets it bleed. He fills pages. The pressure inside him drops, for a while, at least. He finds another inmate to listen to his reading, to hold the thoughts in his hand, his mind, and to taste them for quality with his tongue, like the fine drugs they both have known and sold and fought for. It's good, the friend says. It's good. The friend is one who knows, who has an ear attuned to the music of words. The dragons, hovering outside and in, pause, take a rare break. They wait for their chance to harvest another heart to add to their collection. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What Hallmark Cards Will Never Tell You About Love


A Hallmark card will never tell you that love is a hot copper pipe on which you bet your day off, a parking lot into which you wander with a torn bag of groceries looking for a car you can't find. A Hallmark wish will never tell you that love is seeing your face in the morning mirror, haggard and worn, because you have been awake since two parsing the voices left unanswered at your desk; they won't tell you that love is forgetting to buy shoelaces because a sick child was crying in the aisle of the hardware store. No, they surely will never tell you that love is the dashed hope that tonight might be the one you dreamed when the day was young, that it is the surprise of a frost moon sitting on the hip of a mountain while you worry about the cost of a fan belt, radiator hose, and valve cover gasket. Hell will freeze over before a Hallmark card, crafted to wring tears of romance from your wallet, will ever say that love is hearing your defeat repeated in the words of children in the back seat and then feeling shame because you know you have passed on your poison. They might mention that love is the horizon over which a mystery travels, sure of itself as a heart that finds the will to beat one more time. And they might point to flesh thrilling to tender touch. But they will never tell you about the annihilation, the tumbling, polishing, final surrender that is the price you pay for love.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Controlling the Conversation


The meetings go on and on, and The Program is a sprawling beast of hundreds of teachers, thousands of students, and a wide range of courses. It needs overseeing. It also needs direction and dialogue in terms of teaching. Thing is, we don't talk much about teaching. We talk about forms. We talk about policies. We talk bureaucracy. We talk assessment, sort of. The controlling ideas, goals, SLOs, and required reading for teachers have been set and are not up for discussion. They have formed the narrow chutes that contain conversation. And the teaching of them is not a subject of discussion, is not on the table, under the table, or even in the same room. In our controlled little environment, all is copacetic, crew-cut, and non-negotiable. Any questions?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Fast, Good, Cheap: Pick Two


Money was tight, and it had to be good, so I knew right away it wasn't going to be fast. The job that is. It stood there: two stories of hulking rough-sawn studs with sixteen-inch centers, two-by-ten rafters, two-by-twelve floor joists between the two stories.



It wasn't going anywhere. That was for sure. It was built to withstand the hundred-mile-an-hour winds that blow here when weather comes. Two stories on an open plain between the mesas meant that the house would take hits. Lots of hits. I just hoped the windows would withstand the gusts. Yes, the work would have to be slow if it was going to be good, and it had to be good: hurricane strips on every roof beam, tight seals, good insulation, and all the finish work. Good also meant beautiful. That was a tough one, for me, the quality piece. My history was more about "git 'er done" than "do it right." I'd have to re-work an old story of mine that ran contrary to mindful labor. Housework sent me back to the days my father was in Viet Nam and I served as the first-line of house repair. I did not relish the prospect of years of working that one out. The weight of it settled onto my shoulders and back. We were in for the long haul on this project, about six years of summers and then some. If I knew how much work it was going to be I would have run, run for the hills and never looked back. But, being a bit on the dim side, I thought what the hey? Give it a go.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Starving the Golden Goose


Many of the doodads, gizmos, and digitalia we take for granted these days originated in humble labs and drawing boards at state universities. Basic science research has no immediate, short-term, cash-cow outcome but produces yummy products like Velcro and Gore Tex and little innovations like the internet. Of course, our wise leaders have decided to cut basic research funding to places like universities, relying instead on the offspring of wealthy families to pay higher and higher tuition for education in land grant universities, whose missions state something like "as close to free as possible for as many as possible." Something has gone terribly wrong here as prisons and security apparati grow larger by the day while education, creativity, and research wither on the vine. The Donald and his cronies hate science, real study, and anything that smacks of something greater than two brain cells rubbing together. He, and his policies, are more about impulse, reflex, reaction, knee-jerk tax cuts for billionaires, de-regulation of polluting corporations, and ADD Tweets. All the twit's tweets in the world, however, won't result in the next big thing. That takes steady work, patience, mindful attention, and a smidgen of imagination. All of these are in short supply in Trumpo myopia.

Stacked Up


They are circling, waiting to land, but are getting low on fuel, all those tasks that need attention. I have to call about the cognitive testing, the neurological appointment, the cat appointment, the prison film project, and then there are the papers, the stacks and stacks of papers. My office looks like it is occupied by a hoarder. Maybe it is. The problem is I can't keep my mind on what has to be done. It is unruly and bounces around like some kid with too much candy who is about to melt down after his Halloween sugar rush. Now, this is what is. It causes stress because I still have responsibilities. People expect me to do more than I am able to do. That's a problem. One that has to be addressed. Now. Thing is, I can't remember what it is I am supposed to do about it. Where is that list? What was I doing?The absent minded jokes aren't so funny anymore.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Irons in the Fire


They rest there on the coals, sleeping dogs, bright red in the evening light. I put them in a while ago, hoping that I might someday extract the glowing harvest and pound them into the tools and shapes I will need for the rest of my journey. The one sending out subtle sparks as it breathes the heat of the embers is grief. That one sits in me like a ticking time bomb. It burns brightest at dawn when the possibility of a new day fans it into a near molten state, flowing lava. The one next to it ticks perceptibly. That one is joy. Without that one, nothing I do will be worth the powder to blow it to hell. I have to retrieve my gloves, the thick, leather ones given to me by my father, the ones he got from his father. And the goggles. Those are new. One has to bring his own style, after all. I will wear purple socks too. The anvil and hammer are waiting for the work to come. It has taken a lifetime to get to this point. I have made many mistakes and wasted too much time, but the moment is now, the place here, the words tempered, waiting only for all the craft, passion, and love I can bring to their birth.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Of Introversion and Other Afflictions


The membrane between it and you is pretty thin. You can see through it, but it's tough. You can't quite break out of it. So you carry on in there, all by your lonesome, dreaming of the day that someone might see you. But they don't see you because you can't reach out to them. You are a failure at self-promotion, marketing, attention getting. You are always the last one to get the call, if you even get a call. In these days of din, volume, and cacophony, you are especially silent. The digital revolution has made the ego king and the extrovert a cruel despot. You are not only the minority, you are erased from the scene. Yours is not the life of shallow friendships and casual crowds. So you trudge through your days, a misfit, outcast, social incompetent trying to learn the ways of a world gone berserk with half-baked impulse, shoot-from-the-hip Twitter feeds. You stand there, appalled and uncomprehending on the sidelines hoping that someone might string together a few words that might break the shell, might free your feet to join the other idiots on the conga line. 

That Young Guy


An inmate was waiting to pass through the gate that opened onto the big yard of the Rincon Unit. Standing there with a cane, wearing a straw hat, he looked wizened, and his body carried the relaxed posture of a man at home with himself. He turned as I approached and we stood there waiting for the snap of the electric lock to open the gate. "You the writing guy?" he asked. "Yep." "I used to do that workshop a while back," he said, "with a young guy, curly hair." I named others who had done the workshops before me. None of them fit. "How long ago?" I asked. "Four, five years," he said. "I've been doing them for ten," I said. His eyes lifted. "You put on weight," he said. "Gone gray too," he said. If only you knew, I thought. I did not recognize him either. "That bad?" I said. "Just like me," he said. "Had a hard time of it." I realized I had no idea what he had been through. "I didn't have a  cane back then." We looked at each other, and saw something there, two men who have taken a few hits, waiting for the gate to open. Soon enough, it did, and we went through together.

The Other Side


Over here, on the other side, where it's time to begin to close up, trim the wick of desire, and taper back, it is the little things that teach you where you are, that show you you are no longer what you thought you were, that you can no longer do what you used to do, no matter what you think you can. The cat, for instance. In the predawn darkness she finds a nest in your lap and settles in with her motor running. The earthly delight is palpable. You feel the preciousness because you are crossing a line into something different, something less full and certain than you knew before. You notice that your body is so heavy you can't lift your hand to scratch her ears. You feel like you have been stuffed. With lead. But you still rally to get your self girded for the work to come. You carry on in the inertia of the old ways, not having fully "decided" yet that you must adapt to getting old. You have not yet severed the ties to the hard slog of making a living and have commitments: grading, teaching, workshops. But the ambition has gone. You go through the motions, more than a little disinterested in the hustle to improve and get an edge. People find you boring and weird. Some want to walk on you. You are target now. Because you are soft, wrinkled, and plump, you make a pretty easy target. You pull back, notice that you are alone. You remember that you came in alone, that you are moving toward your exit, the one you will take alone and naked as the day you were born.The only company you can keep is that of others who know this secret. There in the lonely comfort of shared mortality, you rest as the shade comes down. You have to tell them. Have to tell yourself. You have crossed the line, like it or not. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Body of Wind and Feathers: The Early Days


Summer 2010 --


We arrive in New Mexico trailing streamers of desert heat. Here it is quiet and cool, jade green and burnished buckskin. Prayer flags join Indian blankets and Georgia O’Keefe style hats and Remington bronzes to make a style. Some people arrive with momentum and fashion homes of adobe and pools near the rocks of El Morro. Others take on the hardscrabble land and build a challenge. They raise goats, open businesses, offer services, make meals an art, shape clay, interpret the magic of the canyons and mesas. The days are long and bright and the wind spins rainbow kites. The place works a spell. A place opens. It waits on the other side of work and fire. The barrier looks impossible to pass, but my heart rests on the other side of the wall. I have to find a way, the one that is not direct, but out of my line of sight, just in shadow, on the periphery. 

***

Navajo rugs, Taos drums as big as a table, antlers, incense, flowers, this place has the feeling of an altar. There are places to sit, converse, contemplate. Corners, couches, hogans, seat cushions. There is a place where people do the work and live the dream, follow the fine thread laid down through time. Paintings, churches, woven pillows, more Taos drums as cup holders, sheepskin covers, family photos, but no microwave, TV, or computer that I can see. Even those words sound foreign here. I feel small and weak in this big place, this thin air. We are on the edge on the rocks leading up to El Morro. It is sunrise. What will I do today, this the first day here? This is a million dollar opportunity: time, place health. The gun is loaded. The hay is in the barn. I’m at the starting gates. Ready, set, sit.

***

So I was watching Maqui yesterday to figure out how it is he handles a business and a restaurant. He and his cook make sure people are served and treated well. Also he focuses on whatever it is he is doing. I watched him squeeze lemons and then de-leaf a strawberry for Megan’s lemonade. He did so with utter intention, mindfulness, and attention to the tasks. He does one thing at a time, doing whatever it is he is doing.

***

How clear, dazzling, and empty the air. How ephemeral my prints in the sand in the wind. The paradox of presence and impermanence dance like dust devils. Torn and faded prayer flags flap their happy message to any who will listen. Get up, pilgrim and do what you can do today. Find your vision in the quiet, then pick it up and carry it into the world, clinging tight so that you don’t forget, don’t forget. It is too easy to forget when too much of the world tugs at your attention.

Kate took us on a walk on the mesa this morning. We passed ruins, saw tracks of deer. Then a kestrel perched in front of us on a juniper branch. He stayed there while we walked past, headed over to a place not yet finished, a draft of a poem needing some revision. “What about moving up here into Tony and Jasmine’s place?” Kate asked.

***

Who is this observer who speaks from the junipers, so sad, tireless, and insistent? He scares me and sometimes shows himself in the corners of my sight, never quite touching the range of direct gaze. I am so glad to sit, but not so glad to stand up and take steps toward fashioning my love. Help me dear God to be so full that I cannot contain my joy, that it spills out of me in actions that fill me even more, a cycle of cascade and filling, the miracle of step after step. Go and look for prints.

***

While I was sitting this morning, I heard something, some kind of a cry, close to the house, human-like, a woman’s voice, it seemed, but not. Once, and then again, more insistently, out behind the house. I went to check on Megan. It was not her. I then called Kate. Not was here, so I wondered if it had been him. No go. So what was it? It had to be La Llorona. But in the morning? I don’t know.  A mystery.

***

A fierce wind buffets the valley today. It howls through the windows and the juniper branches. Dust comes up the road in drapes, sweeping the dust before it. In a hurry, it stops for nothing.

***

I took the bike and the truck down to Chain of Craters this morning. Nice road, but I had to learn how to ride it. It’s not a mountain bike trail nor is it a road ride, but something in between. Like many things here, it is new and unfamiliar. With contact, however, I begin to see the landscape, the terrain so to speak. I learn new repertoires, new ways of responding. I am also getting acclimated. I can ride the bike for an hour without dying, and even stand up for a while. I am moving into being here with some strength, some physical adaptation.

***

Joy that cannot be contained. Boo bounds across the sidewalk and then leaps up on the  table. She lies on her back and wants to be rubbed. She is a Tibetan pony in terms of toughness. Even her fur is so thick it feels like fleece. She delights in what she is given and accepts what is withheld. She shows up with greater and greater frequency at the window in the morning. She runs to meet us when we arrive. She does this show at sunrise to show us how happy she is.

***

On my ride to the Ancient Way café, I passed a car freshly rolled over in front of Bria’s. The driver was just getting out and the EMTs were putting away the backboard. How fragile… It was lucky that no one was in the oncoming lane twenty minutes before. I spoke with the Navajo officer who was writing up the report and taking down notes. He saw tracks in the road I did not, but I nodded anyway as he pointed them out.

***

Kate made dinner for us at her place. Bria, Kirk, David, Jim, Chon, Megan, and myself. Steak, lamb, wine, vodka, asparagus, potatoes, peppers, onions, cous cous. Bria made blonde ale that may have been one of my favorite beers ever. Kate gave us a tour of the gardens and the plans. I rode my bike in the dark home. A crescent moon hung over dark streaks of clouds in the ultramarine blue, Venus higher up in the heavens. Chon spoke about Cambodia. She knew the reign of Pol Pot to the year, month, and day. About not having enough to eat, eating any animal they could catch.  We sat in silence for a while as Chon spoke, fighting back tears, the picture of courage, strong heart.

***

So, in a small way, I engage. I paint. I ride my bike on new trails. I learn to cook in other people’s houses. I am blessed with being able to do things. If I want to do something, I need to just do it and let it go at that. Some things will happen and others will not.


***

The sun has not yet risen, but the El Morro Valley sits in the pre dawn light. Only mocking birds and mourning doves break the silence. No wind stirs the trees or the grasses. It is the good time, the quiet time. I sit and count breaths into heartbeats of twelve, hoping that if I can control my breath, I might be able to control my thoughts. Not much luck there yet. I am grateful for this day, for all these days on the high New Mexico plateau. The light continues to reveal more of the valley. Soon the sun will come over the crest and we enter the dazzling day brilliance and shadow, or direct and intense light.  Soon it will be my time to get up and move. I ask that I move with grace and presence in whatever I do. The direct light hits the high buildings first, Kate’s among them. It looks like it will be a bright, dry day. Where I sit all remains in shadow, still cool, anticipating. The Japanese lantern is on the table. Chairs wait for visitors.

***

My sister Sarah came over from Albuquerque for a visit. We walked the mesa last night around sunset. A crescent moon was waxing and Earth shine lit the moon’s shadow. We climbed up and down the rocks as wind and sun kept the gnats down and our worries at bay. This blending of heat and coolness mingled around us as the vistas opened up. To the north, broad green, grassy plains at the foot of the Zunis, and the hoodoos called Los Gigantes standing apart from creamy sandstone cliff faces. To the west, El Morro’s escarpment and the craters of El Malpais. To the south, Kate’s house before a Mormon pasture stretching south the other half of the Davis anticline, a huge arch of sandstone that has since eroded, and more buttes. To the west, Zuni Land and the low setting sun. It all spreads before us, inspiring and humbling, so beautiful, enduring, vast, fragile, changing. There is a pull coming from the land, a pull I feel in my heart, a call I hear in my soul. The low hum asks for reverence and worship and dancing. The mystery lies in how this can happen. The only way is through fears and straight into surrender. It asks nothing less than heart and hands. It whispers “Join me;” “Honor me;” “Wake up.” “Live me a life worthy of this place.”

***

Boo follows me around like a dog and rolls over in front of me, shamelessly, waiting for me to rub her belly. Her one good eye looks at me full of trust and pleasure. She purrs before rolling back over a scouting ahead, tackling grass blades and balls of fur. I don’t know where she goes at night, but so far she has eluded the owls, hawks, coyotes, and big cats. I look forward to seeing her when I return to the house. Booster, Boo-boo, Boonkimous. She plays on the flagstone chasing invisible prey. She sees something in me. She knows.

***

I follow Kestrel Road in my dreams. It winds through pastures dotted with juniper and sage. Last night, as the sun set, I watched swallows dip to the water, skim and sip it before rising again in tight turns on their search for bugs. Water ran over a little waterfall into a pond bigger than the pool at El Morro. It is backed up against the rocks, a testimony to human power to shape the land. The sun, the air, the birds, water, and scent of sage added up to making this one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

***

We sipped soup, crackers, beer, and talked small talk. Stores, projects, walk over the rocks, food, dogs. Not ran alongside us as we drove Kate back home through the dark down the one lane road and up the bumpy stretch to her place. We got out to look at an iris the color of midnight, of deep purple, almost black, an iris of mystery, the rarest of plants.

***

Father’s Day. Still in the saddle on Kestrel, riding the range of possibilities, holding the reins of my destiny. I am not up so early that I cannot see the computer, but the sun is still far below the horizon, the quiet when the veil is still thin. Time in El Morro is running out. The last grains of sand are waiting to drop through the hour glass of our sojourn. Moments feel compressed, more urgent, poignant, but still inevitable in their passing. Only my attention notices them sliding past, the great river. My arms are sore from helping Briana yesterday. I shoveled back fill around her septic tank, helped place the D-Box in the intersection, dug out the trench leading to the next field, and generally breathed in lots of silt. It was a windy, dry, nasty job. But my reward was a swim in David’s pool. After that Diablo and Angel would not leave me alone. Hungry for affection, lonely, like part of me, they see the walker at the edge of sight, and look to live the possibilities.  

***

I guess I could leave it at that, but there is more, so much more. Megan and I had dinner with Kate at the Ancient Way Café. The light of the setting sun hit me square in the eyes as we savored Jamaican spiced chicken, sweet yams, mango salsa, rice with red peas, delicious strawberry lemonade, slightly melted cheese beneath slivers of coconut. Kate is getting ready to leave for her trip to Indiana. The jade lantern still sits on the table waiting for the visitors that surely will come. My life is standing outside the door of this episode. He is smoking a cigarette, and has one foot propped up against the wall. Not in a hurry, nor entirely patient, he knows that time swiftly passes, and opportunities are lost. He is the stranger in the trees, the watcher in the clouds, the whisper on the wind. He has no need for me to listen, but a strong hope that I will join him in finding the way, the live wire, the under current of beauty and energy in all things. Which way, dear Pilgrim?

***






The Space Behind the Noise


A little music. Some plants. Nice tables and comfy seats. Time too. Lots of time, sweet time. To wonder. That's all I ask. Consistency, movement, practice, vision too. Guess I want a lot. Maybe too much. Or not enough. Desire that is. Raging, rolling, burning desire. Into action. Surrender. Joy. Abandon. A taste of sweet peace and paradise. All because of this, of you, beloved. You helped me to remember, to ask, and to give. With you I can stand without fear and step forward into what I will I never fully know or understand. When I have passed the point of seeing I will let you carry me the way I now carry others. Help me see what is so close but so easy to forget, so quiet there in all the noise.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Dangerous Possiblities Outside the Virtual Bubble


The screen lit the way as the cursor blinked, waiting for the next key stroke, the venture into a blank page, uncharted territory. He could stay here, at home, play it safe. It felt like treason, but he closed the laptop and set off into a day still young with possibility and sensory indulgence. That work would have to wait. The desert of his destiny was calling. He might not make it back. Of that he was certain. It was a risk he was willing to take. The dangers were everywhere, the need great, a world on fire. He had to call the warden at the prison to ask if they would allow a camera in to interview inmates. He was lifting his head up high enough to be cut off. They would shine the light of scrutiny onto what it was he was doing: the contraband, the coloring outside the lines, the blunt disregard for rules. He would do it though. Why exactly, he couldn't say. This was all new to him, the bold step forward into a world waiting to sweep him away, to take him off the stage of the drama in which he played the one without scripted lines. Say it, out there where it matters, where you might not get the thing you most desire, the voice said. The lights are about to go out. Your chance is now. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Ego-Holic In Chief


A man who is never wrong, who attacks others who say he is wrong, who defends his rightness with his dying breath, is an ego drunk, an opinion addict, is acting out and needs to dry out. Trump is drunk on his self-image, his solipsistic conversations with himself, and with imposing his warped worldview on the world. His is the simple-minded, binary universe of winners and losers, of white and black, of with me or agin'me. He is "right" about everything. One of the tenets of recovery is learning to "get off it," or to promptly admit when you are wrong. When that is impossible because the rabid ego will never admit being wrong, the drunk gets to stay a drunk. All who go along with it are enablers. Well, we have a raging ego-maniac who is drunk on power in the White House, and he leaves a swath of chaos and megalomania in his wake. Anyone who really cared about him would call for an intervention. Sycophants, thugs, goons, and yes-women are too busy keeping the house of cards from imploding. We'll see how long that lasts. The biggest drunks fall the hardest and usually take a few of us with them when they collapse: think war, stock-market collapse, healthcare crisis, skyrocketing poverty, xenophobia, and on and on. The cardboard cut-out man,who worships his tall drink of power, the idol of his reflection, won't see it coming. We'll say we knew as the dust settles. We knew. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Why Public Education Sucks


For the record: I am a devotee of the idea of public, democratic education. My life is better because of inspired teachers. I owe them. As a working class kid, I never would have gotten what I needed in a decadent dictatorship, a puppet plutocracy, an arrogant autocracy, or an opulent oligarchy. Public education has made my livelihood possible. I've been a teacher for thirty five years and have taught elementary, middle, secondary, and college students. This little rant is not a commercial for elite, private schools. What it is is an indictment of the tyranny of testing and all it implies. No Child Left Behind picked up the bad idea that the outcome of a good education should be passing a test. (Of course, the lack of funding, bad working conditions, lack of respect for teachers, bad policies made by politicians (not teachers) also had a lot to do with it.) That outcome pushed, no, coerced, teachers into teaching to the test, and left the real work of education -- equipping students to become creative problem solving humans and engaged citizens of a democracy -- out in the cold, an after-thought. Students have learned not to think, but to wait for the answers. The ones who asked questions got thrown out; many ended up in prison. Public education has made a business out of producing mediocrity: standardized, bloodless, dry, mind-numbing, instruction-following mediocrity. One of the taboos of the new era is creative self-expression and being "human." The new way is exclusively "social." Well, I think that the best social achievement comes from a knowledge of what one loves to do, what one is good at, and what one feels "called" to do. That comes from self-awareness and self-examination. The "self" makes the best "social" possible. This dominant either/or view of knowledge as exclusively socially constructed drives good minds out of the classroom and into hiding. The few that make it do so in spite of public education rather than because of it.