Saturday, April 29, 2017

They Come Together

After the fall, the trauma, the wound, there is an opening, a chance for healing to begin. There in the quiet, the only sounds you hear are the echos in your mind, and you can choose to get up or stay there broken on the ground. If you decide to rise, you will begin the long, hard road toward giving. You reach for the touch of others who might understand. Some, not all, will hear you. A few will join you, will help you build what needs to be built. There will come a day so beautiful it will rend the borders of you and you will blaze with light. The work begins and you take what you need from the strength of your brothers and sisters who come together attuned to the sound of your yes.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Mean and Nasty

Then there are the Lady Macbeths of the world, the Iagos, the slippery slimy back-stabbing ones who want to undo you. Often they are beautiful to the eye, rich in charisma, personal power. They will stop at nothing to assassinate your character, drag you down, and they delight in seeing you broken and wounded. Theirs is the fear so dangerous it blossoms sometimes into violence. They do not welcome or love the stranger and choose the fist over the open hand, the slammed door over dialogue. The more open, forgiving, and generous you are the greater their desire to do you harm, to stick the dagger in the rib when no one is watching. Watch for them. Know that theirs is not the only way, and that the price you pay for living under the spell of needing to be "safe" at the cost of hurting others is a hard heart, the invention of an enemy, a vision of "us" and "them," and a dark detour from your given path.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

How It Works

Something pops out of joint and your sleepy stumbling habits hit a wall. Now you can just stop there and curl up in slug-a-bed safety. Or you can say Huh, didn't see that coming and begin the journey into your secrets. You will have to follow the thread leading to what needs to be said. There you must face the dragon. In the heat of battle, you will be wounded, but if you are resourceful and true you will find a way around and through. You will then be lead onto a ledge overlooking the precipice of never imagined. At this point you pull the compass from your desires and cobble together the incantation that will lead you to your forgotten promises, your gift that was inscribed on a stone that was long ago flipped over, the truth of them hidden from you. It is the words that you want, what you must hold close, wrap in sacred cloth. Carry them with you always and leap into the unknowable. The dragon, now awake, has caught your scent, is coming to reclaim what he has stolen from you, and you need to stay one step ahead as you make your way into a joy that infuses you with fearlessness, even in the face of death. You have been broken, but somehow, miraculously, you have what you need to keep moving, to keep the glowing embers you carry from going cold.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

There Was a Time

Your hair was long, pants baggy, and wallet almost empty. You carried a backpack as you walked the narrow streets in Cuernavaca looking for a cheap hostel. You had no health insurance, no safety net, no cell phone, and no one who knew you before had any idea where you were. Mother included. You liked it that way. You had come for some answers, mainly to the question of whether or not life was worth living, arrogant young man that you were. There, off in the distance, framed by the colonial buildings that lined the streets, was the big volcano. You liked that too, seeing a volcano down the street on which you would live for the next several months. You would learn to live on the money you could make teaching English, learn to shop in the market for black beans, fresh corn tortillas, jitomates. You would read B. Traven and travel on chicken buses to Oaxaca. You would smuggle a Mexican friend across the border and then travel and work together back in the Estados. But all of that would come later, after you figured out what you came to figure out. You had to learn how to care for someone else, even if that took you out of where you thought you might be going.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Word Problems

He sits there before dawn doing God knows what with his little word stack. He crunches, tinkers, arranges, and twirls them into shapes that make sense to some ineffable hunch coiling down there in the folds of his gut. Why does he do this? It is because he must. The angels of his duodenum prod him forward and up in search of a direction. He must be lost, you say. He follows a thread that calls him toward something wanting light. He enters the zone of the thing, and, once there with it, in contact, can feel its power over him, the power of its story. It is here that the trash has to be hauled out or the treasure taken home. With a wand made of sound he can then rework the narrative into something a tad more, well, helpful. It is here that desire is so important. What do you want he asks his heart. If the heart is able to speak it will tell him. It is then up to him to locate the beauty in the word pile he has gathered. If he finds the right ones, they will light the way. They will lift his spirit and give him strength and direction. Others will see a change, not only in his eyes, but in his deeds. He enters the paradox of both undone and made anew. They may think him lost, yes. Well, maybe. I guess that the moth, too, is lost, right before it enters the flame.

Monday, April 24, 2017

First Freakin' Hundred

Words, that is. They are the hardest. After them, writing has usually taken on some self-perpetuating momentum that carries it forward. Those first ones, though, you have to overcome inertia, you know the object at rest thing, to get it up and running. Something out of nothing, or putting together what's there waiting to be said. Now Rachel Carson was good at that. She pointed to how we humans are actually part of nature. We're animals you know. Out of her work, we got things like the Environmental Protection Agency and regulations about how much poison we can pour onto the food we eat. Yes, we eat food, food grown on soil, soil that is part of, you know, nature, the environment. Well, the other side is having his hundred too, days that is. He's out to dissolve the work of decades, to get rid of the EPA, the NEA, and anything standing in the way of corporations cutting their way to the nearest bottom line. Well, the first hundred has been pretty rough, I gotta say. But there is rustling in the bushes and some of us animals are getting pissed. You can get a lot done in a hundred, and ours begins now.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Fog Line

I am riding two lines. The first is the actual white line marking the edge of Sunland Gin Road out here in the cotton boondocks of Southern Arizona near Eloy. The fields run away from the road, flat and dusty, to the Toltec Buttes. Now they look like Arizona: volcanic cliffs of baked irritability out there toward the horizon. The other line is subtle. It's the one I don't want to cross anymore than the fog line on the highway. This line is my anaerobic threshold. As long as I stay on this side I can keep pedaling pretty hard. If I go over that line and blow up, I'll lose the ability to sustain a high effort and will have to limp to the finish line of this 20 kilometer time trial. Not that I have any business out here. I am not a trained cyclist or a talented endurance athlete. But I got up at 3:45, packed my stuff and drove up here to pin on my number at 5:45 on a Sunday morning. Now I'm in the final five kilometers, and this is where it's supposed to hurt. So I ride that line. I go just up to the edge and watch my heart rate spike, the lactic acid saturate my quads, my vision go blurry, and my limbs go floppy, before pulling back on the throttle. Steady. I am hoping that all this blood will cleanse my black mood, lift and carry the toxic, calcified plaque of my psyche away to the rinse cycle. I'll know later whether the dopamine, the endorphins, the lovely pain-killer chemicals have done their job of lifting me out of this depressive rut. As the gap closes, I can push it harder and harder until the last half mile, where it's all-out puke-o-rama hard. I stand up and sprint to the finish going thirty miles an hour right before my vision goes spotty. It takes a minute for my breath to come back, my heart rate to slow to the point where I can think again. That was good. I could have maybe gone a sliver harder in a few places, but then I might not have ridden that line between fog and fun.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Return of the Black Dog

Just when you thought you were free, he comes back. That old leaden body, sudden irritability, dead mind, the no-go when the chance offers itself move back in uninvited and unannounced. Yep, it's the black dog. Where the hell did he come from? Lack of love? End of semester? Flare up of foot fungus? Whatever the cause, he won't let you be and goes with you as surely as your shadow. He is not merciful or kind but tenacious and tireless, unlike you. You can barely get out of bed. In fact you don't get out of bed unless you have to, even if you have to. Then he talks to you with his sad eyes. This life does suck doesn't it? It really doesn't matter what you do. Then you can't make sense of things and forget what it was you were about to do, who you were supposed to call. Papers pile up on your desk. You start again to lose track. This might be it. This might be the beginning of the big one. You know that, but, oddly, you don't care. You just want to be left alone.

Can't Get There From the Here You know

The old ways you know won't help you get to the place you want to be. To get there, you will have jump the rails of what you know and leap into the void of not yet understood. Your wanting to use the old, tired, and well-worn tools of your habit is like water dreaming of steam but being unwilling and unable to boil. A new way of being requires drastic measures, broken rules, and surrender to the unknown. The ticket out and in is imagination. You must dream yourself into what you deem impossible during the well-lit hours of familiar. The possible is new and terrifying and as close as your next breath. It waits only for you to call it out of the darkness, back home.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What Others See

What you think, believe, fear, love, or possess is not what they see, really. Oh, they might like that you and they share some story about god or cars or who the bad guys are. That way you can sit around a campfire and bullshit your way into a drunken oblivion thinking that, yes, you have figured it out. Nothing wrong with that. But it's not what they see and embrace about you. What they see, how you appear to them, grows out of what you actually do. It is the actions you take, particularly those actions in the service of others, actions that serve to fulfill your social contract with brothers and sisters who need what you have to offer, and the effectiveness of those actual accomplishments that grows a picture of you in the minds of others. Your character, ultimately, will be judged by how you lifted others while here on your path taking care of yourself. So, if you ask why it is that you are not seen the way you want to be seen, look to your actions, and what holds you back from taking the steps that you know you want to take. Look to your community to see what needs doing and then to your fears and selfishness that keep you from doing it. Meet those demons and jump the barriers that keep you from chasing your dreams of connection. Once you are a being in motion toward something bigger than yourself, they will see who you really are.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What's Missing?

Da book about the prison writing workshops is coming along. It aint half bad, and it's still waiting to take the next step, the final word on what the workshops mean, to the inmates and to me. The reality of prison terrifies me: deadness, violence, lowest common denominator, brokenness, loss. I question whether or not I can really, honestly make a dent in that. I question my motives, my understanding, my effectiveness, my tendency to deceive myself, to take shortcuts when it comes to easy answers. I don't trust myself to really look at what is happening and make something comprehensible out of it. Can anything I do really make a difference in someone else's life? And can I say with any confidence what that is or how it happened? I have hunches and want to make up tidy little theories about life narratives being re-written, about opening to new possibilities, about the power of literature and creative expression to foster empathy and wider horizons, but is all of that just wishful thinking, just smoke blowing out the ass a hopeful, lost, obscure dude who happens to love and respect the power of language?


How he got there he couldn't say, but the moon above was half full, the morning not yet broken, and his heart restless. Sleep was a distant memory. Only the smell of grass and the song of wild birds fed his wandering. How could he want something so deeply that it colored every thought, movement, word? Yet he could never have what he so desired. It was the longing, unrequited, ongoing, feeding itself with its own hunger, that drove him out of his solitude, into his undoing. Having lived so long alone, his skin went hot with the nearness of others. The coils of protection loosened slowly, oh so slowly, and he withstood the reflex to run, to extinguish the rushes of love that flowed through him like a river in flood.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


He sat there at the keyboard stroking out his latest rant against the criminals, rapists, drug dealers, and baby snatchers. He was sure they were destroying everything he held dear. The invectives flowed off his fingers like he was born to spew them. His anger knew no limits and had no basis in actual lived experience. He had never played on the same team in school, shared time planting a community garden, or even sat down to a drink with the people he was so set on impugning. He just thought about how terrible these people were, how they were diluting America the white. There, in the back of some question deep in the recesses of reason he wondered if what he was pronouncing had any basis in fact, if he had any actual contact with the people about which he seemed to be so sure. But that question, and the prospect of actually checking it out in some substantial way, like talking to someone, just slipped back into the shadows as his fingers pounded away on his device sending his poison into the social order like a runaway train.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bus Ride in the Rain

Once in a while, prison routine takes a sharp corner into a surprise of suspended expectation. The walls drop away, and the wire loses its confining presence. Often these moments are accompanied by the smell of creosote; they are rinsed by sweet, fresh water. Today is one of those days.
Summer bakes the broad alluvial fan that spreads out from the Santa Rita Mountains in a wide, sloping incline. No floods have run across Wilmot Road for over three months, but the sky to the south today has gone purple with an anvil-headed cumulonimbus. I can see lightning stabbing at the ridges as the storm slides down off the mountain, dragging a dusty veil of wind and rain toward the prison. It’s about twenty miles off when I arrive, go through the search process and questions, pass through the sally port, and stand in a shrinking circle of summer sun. A shadow is taking over the expanse of scrub between the prison and the mountains. A storm has slid off the heights and is careening across the flats. The prison will be hit first, then Tucson, and, then the open fields to the north. There, it will become a dust storm. I am glad to be here and not driving.
The wind whips and scours loose paper as a twisting dervish carries debris six hundred feet above me in a spinning tunnel of particulate and litter. Immediately after, a rush of wet, cool air drops the temperature fifteen degrees in a matter of minutes as I set down the tub, in awe of the swift changes that desert monsoons push ahead of their arrival. In a few more minutes hail could could be hammering the metal roof above me.

Lightning strikes a couple hundred yards away and the peal of thunder is immediate. Rain travels across the bleak yard, coming as a broom sweeping a cloud of haze before it while wind rips and lifts water from the irrigation rivulet that travels dawn the ditches and swales around the trimmed ocotillo and palo verde trees. I would be better served inside but take cover under the overhang as rain blows against in cyclonic gusts under the steel roof. Yard after yard succumbs to the oncoming deluge as the gulleys gather the flood. The visitor bus driver sees me under the awning and veers off the main road and down the drive to the main gate. He speeds through the rising waters and sends a graceful wing of spray out from the keel of the wheels. He is loving it.

I am soaked to the skin immediately as I enter the downpour but walk to meet him, tubs in front me like a cooler to a party. I shiver but feel good to be cold. 

The driver is a young guy with holes on his ear where plugs used to be. No jewelry here. He has cranked up a heavy metal station on the radio, but that cannot compete with the peals of thunder all around us. He smiles. I see he is as wet as I am, his orange shirt clinging to his muscled shoulders and back. 

“Just did shift change,” he says, as a way of explaining why he is wet. His hand is on the lever and he waits until I sit down to swing the door shut. I sit on the plastic tandem seat beneath a blast of A/C. The grinding sameness of prison routine is visited by something rich and novel. The smell of the surrounding desert blankets the prison. A taste of the high mountains, the swirling currents of air in a storm cloud thirty-thousand feet high, and the assault of wintery chill have transformed the moment. Our habits of being and thinking have been suspended and we travel in fragile zone of creative tension. We can make this moment whatever we want because of the ephemeral transition zone between what is familiar and what is moving, in constant flux.

We head over to the maximum security unit where we will pick some other straggling visitors. 

Two older women wait under the overhang. One removes her sandals to cross the flooded gap between the overhang and the bus door. It is up to her ankles, but she does not complain. Instead, she moves like a schoolgirl, soaking in the lusciously warm runoff. The other keeps on her sandals and tiptoes. They climb in with help from the driver. Both of them are smiling like kids carrying Easter baskets. They are glad to be on the bus. Their dark hair, streaked with gray, drips onto their shoulders.

They chat with the driver like we are on holiday with him, our young tour guide. “You got here just in time. We thought we were going to be stuck there – all that lightning!”

“Yeah, when it rains out here, the rivers run deep and fast.  All that water has to go somewhere.” He speaks with the calm authority of the local, the native, the one with the inside scoop. We could be tourists in Greece or Nepal but for the razor wire and sharp division between the free and the imprisoned.  For just a minute our roles evaporate, and we are just people on a bus traveling through the storm.

I decide that we will write about rain today. I will ask them to describe a storm that is the composite of all the storms they have seen or heard of. I will ask them to tell the rain so that someone who wasn’t there might get a taste of the experience, might get a glimpse of what the moment was, in all its frightening mystery, all of its spell of awe and possibility.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

With Immense Power

He zips along fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit, but other cars are still passing him. A story written by someone he knows comes into the little capsule, delivered via waves transmitted from somewhere distant. Such magic and sorcery all this glut of discourse. The sound pulses in columns, the result of magnetic effects on a membrane designed to mimic human speech. Wind buffets the little car as a semi tractor screams past on its way to a positive cash flow. The story is a good one about joining the Border Patrol to learn first-hand what the border means to people trying to cross it. Its truth cuts a clear swath through the buzzing chaos of trash and hype. Those wonderfully arranged words grew out of many long nights puzzling over their sequence, how they would sound to a reader's ear. The writer could wander the existing universe of information through finger taps on a computer keyboard. With the stroke of a key, he could reach hundreds, thousands, millions. It was still the quality that mattered, the telling and the truth of the telling. He hoped people would sort through the garbage to hear the immediacy of humans caught in a terrible gamble of life and death in a desert crossing. That was reality, not all this bombardment of image, commercial, and distraction in the name of diversion. The magnitude of all of this dazzled him as he turned off of the big highway and onto a narrow strip that headed south, straight south, down toward the prisons. There were men waiting there. And they were waiting for the opportunity to tell their story, to polish that story, and to broadcast it somehow in a medium not unlike the one he listened to. But their access to such a possibility was highly forbidden. These men were unplugged, disconnected, off line in a world humming with connectivity. It was just another form of deprivation for having violated one law or another, for being out-of-sync with the rules one had to follow to join the game. But not all who see these men are so removed. The possibility occurred to him that he might just be a conduit from a world cut off to a world saturated in noise but hungry for truth, for an honest word. He had no idea of the power sitting there, right in front of him, waiting for his simple desire and the move he might make.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Things You Cannot Say

Because you do not know, you stumble along assailed by ghosts that you cannot see. You cannot see them because they live beneath a cover of darkness behind a veil that you pulled shut many years ago. They goad and stab and tickle you whenever a blind memory of them finds a cue to step up into your mood. Then you goddamn this and fuck that not knowing why you are so angry. So what do you do? You pick up the torch left here by your possibility and figure out how to ignite its revealing light. Once you can see, you have to go into the darkest place of your fear. There you will find wonder and the gold you paid the demons so they would let you live. It is your ransom, and, after some work, you can reclaim the authorship of the story you were born to tell, the gift you have been looking for all these years. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

True Story

A bundle of matter organized somehow into cells that operated together as an organism formed a thing called a thought. That thought led to a series of electrical and chemical messages that prompted muscles to coordinate with one another in a series of orchestrated contractions to bend this guy's knee in a way that made it possible for him to defy gravity and get his ass out of bed. Once standing, balance became more of in issue than it had been in his younger days, but with the light of a headlamp he made his way in the dark down a hallway where he eventually and hygenically drained his bladder. Around him swirled the energy of what some might call angels. He swatted at them thinking they wanted his blood and thought about food and sex. Back up, he made his way to a chair where he invited the future to help him enter what lunatics call a miracle of a day. To one side of him sat a little imp that said no while on the other a voice said just imagine. He realized then that it was up to him and he pulled the ineffable gap between darkness and light up close in a terrified embrace.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Jueves

Moon past full hangs like a tethered balloon about to be punctured by the sagging saguaro. The week is heading downhill into a pile of loose ends. All I want to do is write, to work on the book, but the tasks I get paid for have stacked up on my desk like angry ghosts. Thursday is a long day: three classes, an admin meeting, student conferences, and sometimes more. At the end of the day I will likely be more behind than I am at the beginning. Not such a big deal, just what's on the plate. It's also time to get ready for the prison workshops. I can hear the voices already. "You know," they say, "this is all we have, all that gives us some sense of purpose." Not that it's pressure or anything. Just more of what goes on between my hairy ears. I keep wondering if I am doing the right things. And, in my weaker moments, why I ended up so low on the totem pole. Faculty much younger than I am earn two or three times as much. They are famous, interviewed on the News Hour, get Guggenheim fellowships. I don't make enough to pay my taxes; Jeffrey Brown has not been calling me. It's enough sometimes for me to say I want out, just chuck it, or worse. Not that I am bitter or anything. It's just that Thursdays, for some reason, are the hard days, the ones in which my heart aches for what never was, what will never be. Time to shut up and get to work.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chapter One -- James

He bends down to light his cigarette on the electric coil atop a steel post outside the Programs Building in the Rincon Unit of the Arizona State Prison, Tucson Complex. The coil and post are beneath a hulking monster of a cottonwood tree. It doesn't look so good. Cottonwoods are thirsty trees and need hundreds of gallons on water on a day like today. I doubt the Department of Corrections sees watering a cottonwood as a high priority.

He takes a long drag before standing up and meeting my eyes with the question of whether or not I am coming in next Saturday. I tell him I am, and that seems to satisfy him for a minute. Only later will I understand just how important this simple act will be, for both of us.

His eyes are grey, narrow, intelligent. He is one of the regulars in the workshop. He is also one of the published writers and has won the Pen Prison Writing Contest not once, but twice. He knows I could use his help to energize the circle now that Richard has lost his clearance. He and the other men had been led to believe the workshops were history, and that kind of bad news travels fast in prison.

Richard had been faithful to the writers, meeting them famously on Christmas after a rare desert blizzard. James and the other men were less than optimistic about my chances of filling Richard’s large shoes.

We are on our way out, or rather, I am on my way out.  James is heading back to his “house,” his cell, and another afternoon waiting for chow, the next distraction in the grinding boredom of prison life.

There are the violent flashes, the race riots, the endless politicking and negotiations with the gangs, but mostly the days are dull.

"You know," he says, looking at me over his smoke, "the guys think you're too soft, that the workshops need more pressure, mas animo, you know." He said "animo" in clipped, fluent Spanish. His black stubble and tattoos told the story of gang affiliation, but I don’t speak that language and couldn’t give more detail than that. "And they think your hair is fake. Look, I know it's not, because I know you, but you need to know word isn't all good."

I don't know how to take this. Is he conning me, looking for my reaction? I see that my being here is, in part, a high stakes game, that trust isn’t given easily. In order for the workshops to thrive, I’m going to have to engage more of my passions than I am used to, will have to meet on level ground, as much as possible. That means opening up, not playing a phony role, trying to be something I’m not.

"I'm not Richard," I said. "The workshops are going to be different.... I can't do what Richard did, but I am going to do what I do."

We walk along the sidewalk to where it splits –  James’ path to the houses, mine to the control room, the other side of two locked gates, the sally port, the main yard gate, and the bus that runs between the yards.

"We'll see," he says. "See you next week," his tone making the statement almost a question.  

I found the “see you” interesting. It was exactly what I was thinking, but in a different sense. James was in a class of men that had been invisible to me. Like most people out here in the free world, I thought next to nothing about the men at down here at the end of prison row (or the women in their prisons). They had been expunged from my little mental map by omission and lack of looking as anything.

As I walked, it dawned on me that I might have to become visible to him and the others as well. I would be asked to bring my “A Game,” in that I could not ask them to do more than I was willing to do. James must have been reading my mind.

“And bring in some of your writing. I’d like to hear what you’re working on, if you know what I mean,” he said over his shoulder as he walked down the sidewalk to his house and the cell that waited for him there.

“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ve got a series going on lunacy.”

He liked that and chuckled. “You don’t look like the crazy type.”

“You might be surprised. Even us teacher nerds have stories.”

“Made up or real?”

“Mostly real, some made up.”

“I bet the real ones don’t include prison.”

“No, you got that.”

“Oh well… doesn’t matter, as long as it works. You know Louis Armstrong says ‘you just have to have the music in you.’”

He was too far down the walk to keep talking, and it was “count,” time to be in the cell.

I hefted the plastic tub and buzzed the gate. It clicked and I passed through, showed my badge at the window and turned in the radio.

“Any keys?” the officer asked.

“No. Just words,” I said.

He gave me a screwed up face and then “OK then.”


James, as much as any of the inmates I have worked with, embodied a deep respect for language, for creative work, for music, and the value of expression. He told me that without the purpose he gained from working on his writing, he would die in a way. He had a deep need to be seen, and was acutely aware of the obstacles to finding someone to see or hear him. 

Incarceration, and a social awareness of the men and women who live behind the wires, I would soon see, is only brought into public view when there is a race riot, an escape, or some lurid case of abuse of staff or other sensational news story. As men, as human beings, those we lock up in our prisons are all but forgotten.

There have been some television series about prison lately, but the human faces are mostly omitted from social awareness. There is far too little contact, too little dialogue, to little caring.

It would take a while, but I would begin to see the humanity behind the masks of tattoos, hear the voice behind the armored persona.

Yes, I would see James and hundreds of others. And I would find in them more than I could ever have imagined.

There is a city here, I say, like some amazed explorer, a small ocean of humanity, hungry to compose a meaningful life, at the end of Wilmot, just down that prison road.

Where Things Went Right

In some other universe you wake up confident that you did the right things. You swing your legs out into the day and confidently stride toward your destiny, the footfalls there waiting for you, molded already in clay, recorded as you pass, for posterity. People know who you are. They see your conviction, your alignment, your absolute resonance with the music running through every atom, molecule, and cell of you. Your touch has special power and you smile a lot. It's been a good life and you are grateful, but you wonder sometimes about the other possibilities, like the one in which another you fell through a crack in the system where something went wrong. A botched question or two there sent you into a tailspin of obscurity and closed doors. You think about knowing and how it leads to exile and nakedness. Eden was closed a long time ago you think as you turn to accept the latest award for your greatness.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Cruelest Month

Palo verde  trees have exploded into bloom. The first real heat cooks the sidewalks mid day. The sun is taking its place in the summer ecliptic. But it's still cool early in the morning. You don't want summer to come yet. You want to hide out in winter, put on arm warmers for morning rides, hunker down in the dark so you can figure things out. You haven't finished what you wanted to get done, mainly edit the prison book. Fat lot of good that does. Summer is coming whether you want it or not, even though you have given away more than you can afford to give away. It's time to put on the thick skin, shut down the sensitive ruminations of what you want to be, where you want to go. There is work to do: reports, grades, obligations, classes. All of that will snap to a close soon enough, one month. And then you will be out, into the dazzling light of summer. No hiding there. So suck it up, bro cat. Life is about more than getting what you want. Try to limit your losses.

Losing Touch

I took my turn in the vortex yesterday. The vortex is a zone of creative focus where I  get lost doing some project. It usually lifts me up like the little house in the Wizard of Oz and takes me to a timeless space where I write. Yesterday I worked on the prison book. For several hours I lost contact with all of my teaching duties, my appointments, and the desire to eat. (Now that is weird.) Anyway, what was different about yesterday was that I couldn't quite get back when I left the computer and tried to resume my regular life in this world. It might be part of this brain thing that's going on. I don't want to dwell on it, but things are changing up there, and not for the better. Hmmmmm. That's a problem. I still have papers to grade, students to meet, magazines to mail out, curricula to design. So, this morning I am pushing my feet back to earth, kind of the opposite of pulling up by the bootstraps. Down, boy. Down.

Monday, April 10, 2017


I would not have known him without the heads-up from James and Hiram. He looked every bit the  emaciated ghost from a concentration camp: sunken eyes, stick-like arms, ashen skin, purple lips. This was not the man I knew.

The Gilbert I knew was a strapping fifty-something of a man three years ago. His was a world of letters, intellect, and his sensibility produced some of the best writing to come out of the workshops. He holds advanced degrees, is a close observer, has thrown himself into his writing in ways that open him, make him visible and vulnerable. He touches real truth.

But that sensitivity comes at a high price when a hope for release meets a denial that sends you back to prison for life. His case was up for review. I wrote a letter of support. The hearing might have set him free. The victim's family, though, blocked his plea and the judge agreed. The key went back onto the ring and Gilbert was sent back to hell.

He fell into a darkness so deep that he could not get out of bed, much less come to the workshops. For years, he wasted away, eyes staring at what no one could say.

I sent him poems and books and invitations to join us in the workshops.

The years passed, and all I heard was that he began to sit outside, that sometimes he would play chess with the younger guys. Months. Years.

Now, here he is, standing in front of me. I say his name, even though it doesn't quite fit with the walking corpse who stands there, a feeble smile forming on his dark lips. His eyes have gone flat, but flicker there, a recognition. I shake his hand, then embrace him. He feels like a skeleton.

"Good to see you," I say. I hide my shock, bite my tongue. Don't say anything about how he looks, how he has imploded.

He smiles faintly. He takes a seat at the table. We begin the workshop with a reading about the merits of, and human response to, failure. I think about a line from one of Gilbert's poems: "life is about losing things."

When it's time to read, one of the younger guys has written about how he has found solace and camaraderie the workshop. He says the workshop is "like being with the knights of the round table." He wants feedback on the work.

I ask Gilbert what he thinks.

He takes a moment and I think he will say nothing, but then he finds his voice, and addresses not just the writer, but the circle of men. "The idea is strong, but some of the language is too familiar, too overused. I don't want to say hackneyed, but it is not as fresh as it might be if you spoke something particular to your experience."

The writer takes notes. Other men at the table nod. The discussion begins and does not slow for twenty minutes. In it the men offer suggestions, ask questions, provide examples. Possibility sits at the head of the table and smiles. Yes, she thinks, this is where I want to be.  

Saturday, April 8, 2017

When Things Go South

The line for customs and migration at the Tocumen Airport in Panama City snaked back and forth between nylon tape barriers. It was going to be a while. I figured at least three hundred people stood between me and the customs officials sitting in front of the fancy computers, finger-print readers, and cameras. Might as well check my phone for any messages.

It had been a long day, traveling from Tucson to Panama. Rain had followed us as we traveled south, and a storm was forecast to hit Panama for the next four days. Rare heavy rain right in time for our visit and for time spent with Sean, but that was not the only thing hanging over, or going south, during the trip. 

My phone came to life with a flurry of texts: "Someone kicked in your front door and tried to kill Philip (a neighbor) with a shovel." "A police helicopter and three squad cars were here looking for an ex-con that somebody said you brought to the ranch." "You have endangered the community with your vile irresponsible disregard for safety." "Why didn't you tell people that someone had trespassed in your house back yard you left? Even rattlesnakes get warnings here."

It only got better from there.

Welcome to Panama and two weeks traveling, I thought to myself. Sheesh, what a way to begin...

I knew I would have a lot to clean up when I got back home to Tucson, but for now all I could do was feeble explanations and triage. They were out for blood and for someone to blame for the crisis of security.

So what does one do in such situations?

I can tell you that an ineffective response is to get defensive or to refute the concerns of single mothers worried about their children. So I caved in and took full responsibility for endangering the community, my neighbors. I would keep quiet about he had been a long-time member of the prison writing workshops, had been featured on a national news program for his writing, had been given opioids when hospitalized for pancreatitis and fallen back into drug use, had biochemical toxins pickling his brain, was desperate and had burned every bridge left for him to burn. No excuses, just what is. And none of that mattered. It served only as preamble. What had transpired was its own context, the trigger for a narrative of fear and blame. I saw that there was no way to counter that, so I would have to bend with it.

"Yes, I made a mistake inviting an ex-con to the ranch to help me remodel the bathroom," I wrote.

That helped a bit, but people wanted more.

"What have you learned from this?" "How will you ever regain our trust?"

I went contrite, rolled over, exposed my belly. The story is too long to tell I decided. I live with some risk and engage with some hot-button social realities. Sometimes things go to hell. I take it as part of playing the game, the cost of doing business in a world rife with danger and inequity.

I kept all of that to myself. I tried to see things through their eyes. Yes, they are afraid and want to protect their children from drug addicts and desperate characters. Got it and I'll say it again and again.

The fires have died down and the pitchforks put away for now.

I offered to meet with anyone who wanted to know more, but no one took me up on that. I just got a few more slaps on the wrist for being such a bad neighbor.

Oh well, there are always so many sides to to any event, so many stories competing for traction and proof that who we are is right and that the world spins according to our versions of it.To keep the peace, it's sometimes best just to shut up and listen, for now, anyway.

A more capacious narrative will take time to tell, and openness to take hold. Odds are not in my favor, but I hold out anyway. The work of framing a different way of seeing takes courage and time. Steady boy, steady. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Over the Hump

"Lookin' pretty grey," he said as we rolled along the river trail, the route used by cyclists no longer fast enough to ride with traffic out there in the real world.

He had not seen me in a while, so the observation held water. I forget that I am getting on in years. Reminders like his still come as a bit of icy water to the face.

This slide into late mid life is not what I thought it would be. I thought that by now I would be content with my lot as a has been, washed-up, decrepit old fart. I thought it would be time for beer and TV and collapse into cardiac shut down.

Unfortunately, I am still hot and hungry for life. I want to be free, sharp, focused, and deep into some form of creative self-expression. I want to be in love. It's a bit self-centered and narcissistic I know. Also I don't know for sure if I have the talent to produce anything worth someone else's attention.

And my work life is not over yet. I am supposed to be grading papers, revising assignments, making calls, scheduling meetings, and on and on. So this life I want is on hold, private, and a stewing secret for now.

As I gain momentum on this the later season of my life, I wonder if I will ever get there, to that place where I conduct the music I hear in my heart, narrate the story I compose in my dreams.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Mola Lisa: Woman Between Worlds

The dugout was painted bright green with red trim. Lisa said the colors represented the forest and the sun. It was made by her father and was a gift to her when he died. It needed some work. We powered through the waves with a borrowed motor. Long story there. Suffice it to say that it was all but a miracle that Lisa was there at all, given all that had transpired that morning -- sickness, miscommunication, mechanical breakdown, evil spirits, and gender identity. It was only six-thirty and already a full day. We loaded up and headed toward the mainland, an hour by dugout across open ocean.

Water poured over the gunwales when we plowed through the heavy swells on the way to the mainland. Two by six boards had been bolted on the original limits of the dugout to make it more seaworthy, but the gap between the boards and tree wood had not been caulked. I  guessed that caulk was too expensive, if not hard to come by, here hours away from the nearest hardware store.

I bailed water with a cut-in-half gourd that was just like a big coconut shell as we talked over the whine of the outboard. Just what you do. No big deal.

Clouds hung over the summits of mountains that rose steeply from the coast. It was raining up there, hard, as it had been for several days. A big storm had blown into the San Blas Archipelago and whipped the seas into a nice swell. My shorts had blown overboard in spite of being clipped to the guard wire of the sailboat.

We rose and fell with the swells, and talked about gender roles and how women do so much of the work of the world. She mentioned that her family was short men: she had not married, her brother-in-law had died and left her sister and her niece for Lisa to care for, her father had died, and her mother too. Lisa was the head of household, a community leader, and spokesperson for women in the weekly congress meetings of her community. Her glasses hid her eyes, but I could see the gravity carried by them.

Her Spanish was excellent. She had been selected by the cacique, or silas, what we might call chief, to go to Panama City to study. She had been a star student and now spoke Guna Yala, Spanish, and English. She had been designated the "tour leader" by the tribe and now fulfilled that role with us. We were going to a sacred river to see a cascada, or waterfall, and would be permitted to wash off some of the salt film we had accumulated over five days at sea.

We asked if we could visit her village. Lisa told us that the village was under quarantine because a man had died at the hand of demons. Those demons were still around, and the leaders of the village were performing ceremonies to drive them off. No one who did not live there, even other Guna Yala, was permitted to visit the island. The whole island was under a red flag, and boats were expected to give it a wide berth.

I asked her to elaborate and she said there was nothing more to say. I turned toward the mountains and the trail we would follow up into them. 

The prospect of fresh water, agua dulce, sounded heavenly to me. I had not showered in fresh water since we got on the boat five days ago.

The trail wound past burial grounds, and we paused while Lisa paid her respects and cleaned the mounds covering her father, mother, and other family members. She told us the story of her life. It was one of work, and early responsibility.

Her family was struggling, in part, because there was no man to work on the house or to go work a finca, land used for bananas, rice, yuca, papaya, coffee, and other crops. The men leave the island communities every day at dawn and work until mid or later morning. The women stay and tend the children, cook, clean the house. The roles are quite prescribed, unless one decides to identify as a gender other than the one they were born into. Transvestites are common in the tribe, and, as it turns out, Lisa was one. As such, she was given access to cash by giving tours, with permission, of course. She kept some of the money, but paid fees to the tribe for the opportunity. With a little extra money, she could hire men to help with jobs that she, as a woman, was not supposed to do. She had made her choice and lived within the roles she was given. All very interesting to me.

She had no children for reasons other than marriage or fertility.

Still, she played to role of woman well and led us up to the waterfall with a steady narration of plant, bird, and cultural stories. One of the blossoms looked like lips. The women tried them on.

Lisa held up a sign of protection from evil spirits as I took the picture. Lisa kept invoking protection as we went along the steep, rooty trail.  I heard her speaking softly and asked her about that. She told me she was talking to the spirit world about us, about our being there. She wanted us to be in harmony and on good terms with them. She did not want to get hurt or to have any of us twist an ankle. We heard monkeys howling in the trees when rain began to fall. Lisa told us they hated rain and complained loudly whenever it began.

We passed some of the aqueduct pipes and storage tanks. The water comes from high on the mountain, travels down to the ocean, crosses underwater to the island and supplies the community with fresh water. Wow! Fresh water, no bugs because the island is surrounded by salt water, and cool breezes off the ocean -- not bad.

The trail, which had been climbing steeply for miles, suddenly dropped down into a tropical, muddy densely wooded defile. Then it opened onto a waterfall worth the long walk. Fresh water!

Time for lunch and some swimming. Lisa joined us for sandwiches. Her assistant kept his distance from the group and said little. I offered him some cheese and chocolate. He accepted with a nod but no smile.

Megan jumped in after Sean and we all began a trip down-stream following the river. We slid through various waterfalls and slides. Lisa purified us at the end of the pools.

After the purification, we headed back to the boat where Lisa showed us her molas. Lovely as might be expected. She told us how the molas told stories and were the results of years of practice and training in the stories of origin, of the animals, the ocean, the spirits -- everything that defined the place and the role Guna Yala played in it. Only women, a select few, were allowed by the tribe to make and sell molas. It was a high honor to be designated a molas maker by the community, and Lisa, holy woman, priestess, story-teller, inhabitant between worlds, was considered one of the best.