Thursday, February 2, 2017

Groundhog Day Gets Real

It's said that Bill Murray and Harold Ramis had a pretty big falling out over Groundhog Day.  Murray saw the film as a existentialist morality tale.  Ramis recognized those underpinnings but wanted to keep things light.  It was, after all, a comedy.

Both men were right.  The film, initially overlooked by audiences and quite a few critics, has survived the way cult classics like The Big Lebowski and The Shawshank Redemption have, finding their stride long after leaving the multiplexes.  Being a clever comedy is not what keeps Groundhog Day in our vernacular.  It's that it does touch something within our spiritual core, playing off the familiar Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance).

From a Buddhist perspective, it captures the notion of Samsara, the endless cycle of human suffering that is caused by our constant cravings and aversions.  We want things to be different.  We want more contentment and less struggle.  It is our perspective, not merely our circumstances, that leads to our discontent.

For many of us (not all, but many), these are uncertain times underscored by a steady sense of dread.  There has been a fundamental shift in our national voice, and for a lot of us, it feels hostile, selfish, and bullying. We want things to be different, and we struggle to figure out how we can best make our voices heard to create the change we crave.  In the meantime, we keep waking up as the clock turns over to 6am, the radio blares "I Got You Babe", and we acknowledge that we're in for another day of political and social samsara.  Facebook fights, Twitter wars, CNN, Fox, NPR, and Breitbart.  It's all there for us, every day, just as sure as Ned Ryerson is going to greet Phil Connor in the street to sell him life insurance.

What Phil Connors learns in Groundhog Day is that the struggle gets easier, and the suffering is lessened, when he turns his attention from trying to change what he can't to changing what he knows he can.  Of course, that doesn't mean he isn't working toward getting the calendar to flip to February 3rd and the promise of a new day.  That's the thing he wants most, but to make it happen, he has to change his tactics.

Phil starts to pay attention.  He discovers the power of letting go of ego and opening up to the suffering of others.  He finds empathy.  That's how a self-centered, snarky meteorologist goes from absorption in his own unhappiness to becoming an agent of change in bringing comfort to others.  And it's this journey from samsara to the role of bodhisattva (one who puts compassion for others first) that ultimately liberates Phil Conners from suffering as well.  Some have said that by the end of the film, Phil has attained enlightenment.  Buddhahood.  Not bad for a weatherman from Pittsburgh.

We've got a long road ahead of us, whether you are "all in" for POTUS 45 or railing against his policies, cabinet, and character.  We're all - in some capacity - suffering as we try to figure out why our differences divide us so deeply while our humanity seemingly comes up short in establishing common ground.  

For the foreseeable future, it's Groundhog Day.  And the shadows are long, indeed.  But maybe the struggle - if managed mindfully - can lead to something we can truly be proud of.

How we choose to live this day, ad infinitum, will determine our personal and collective destiny.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Take A Seat...and Start Where You Are

I don't care where you land on the socio-political spectrum (well, I do, but that's another post), you have to feel a certain amount of tension and unrest these days.  That specific tension isn't what this post is about.   This post is about how to work with it.  At least, one way to work with it.

I've had the occasional friend or colleague approach me with questions about meditation over the years, but over the past 8 or 10 months, that number seems to have increased dramatically.  We live in a world designed to distract us, a seeming legion of forces bent on dividing us, and our own internal restless, noisy demons and emotions.

We're looking for something to still the waters, be it prayer or Prozac.  What I love about meditation is that it doesn't negate either of these.  If done with some regularity, it might make the former more meaningful and the latter less necessary, however.

I'm no expert.  That's the first thing I should loudly confess.  My training wheels are still intact and I teeter on them daily.  As a meditator, with almost twenty years of on-again/off-again practice, I'm still in spiritual Huggies.

That said, when friends ask, I always hope to have answers.  The good news is, meditation is available to you wherever you are, whenever you need it.  It's as simple as noticing your breath.  Breathe in, breathe out, and pay attention when you do.

When I was a kid, I would lie in bed at night and panic because I would put my attention on my breathing and wonder if I might. Just. Stop. Breathing.  I got past this little eccentricity but it's ironic that, as an adult, I would choose a spiritual path that involved paying attention to one's breath to help panic subside.

Meditation allows us to be fully present, in the moment.  It means not dwelling on our desire to redesign the past, nor to be anxious about the future.  It is not a blissing out, a zoning out, a way to escape.  It's actually a way to dive in.  We don't take a lot of time to touch in with what we're feeling in any given moment.  We seek distraction to combat a lot of emotions, and those distractions don't serve us very well.  Eventually, we have to confront those emotions, and when we do, if our mind has laid the groundwork of preparedness, we're much more likely to respond rather than react, to mindfully engage rather than carelessly spin out.

You can meditate if you're a Baptist or a Buddhist, an atheist or a Jew.  It's not a portal into an alternate reality.  It's connecting with the valuable reality of Now.  Staying in the moment, an having the courage to work with what arises.

There are a lot of forms of meditation:  Mindfulness Meditation, Compassion Meditation, Zazen Meditation, Transcendental Meditation, Guided Visualization, Mantra Meditation, Vipassana Meditation...the list goes on.

It can get a little overwhelming, what with all the approaches and postures and forms.  My thought?  Don't let it be.  Find what works for you.  A quiet space.  A place to sit.  Give yourself five or ten minutes.  The most important thing is, don't put pressure on yourself.  It's not as easy as it seems.  As soon as you take your seat, your mind will likely start to leap like a monkey from limb to limb, never lighting for long.  Just come back to your breath.  Count your breaths.  One is great.  Two is good too.  Seven is crazy talk.

Keep at it.  Don't get discouraged.  Find others to who want to practice.  Find books that give you instruction you are comfortable following.  That's largely what this post is about, to share a few recommendations from those who can offer better guidance than I.  Here are some very helpful reads to get you started or to keep you going:

How to Meditate - Pema Chodron

How to Meditate - Tara Brach (link to a free PDF)

Turning the Mind into an Ally - Sakyong Mipham

Real Happiness - Sharon Salzberg

Wherever You Go, There You Are - Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Miracle of Mindfulness - Thich Nhat Hanh 

10% Happier -  Dan Harris 

Start Where You Are - Pema Chodron 
The Best of Pema Chödrön: Life, Quotes, and Books

There are more.  Many more.  It can seem like too many when you're trying to find your entry point.  It's like looking at a roomful of classic jazz albums and wondering whether to start with Armstrong or Ellington, Kind of Blue or Time Out.  The answer is, you can't go very wrong.  Find what works.  Find a book, a website, a video or CD that speaks to you and puts you at ease with the process.  And then sit.  The key is to sit.  Show up and sit.

Sit with what gives you courage and joy.  Sit with what brings you uncertainty and dis-ease.  It's all a part of what makes us human, and it's all part of what we are ultimately working to get comfortable with so we can live with equanimity and compassion.

All you have to do is Start Where You Are.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Writing on the Wall


Immigration and borders are dominating the news this week.  Rather than share my outright opinions on the matter, I'd rather share a story.  It's one of the stories in my collection Buddhist Catnaps & Broken-Down Hymns.  

I wrote this piece after being inspired by T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain, being completely captivated by Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil's Highway, and repeated listenings of Bruce Springsteen's "Across the Border", "Matamoros Banks", and "The Line".  Sam Shepard found his way in here too, I'm pretty sure.  


Dry Lightning

I should tell you how she came to be in my bed, because it’s not like you think. Probably not even like I think.  

She’d crossed the line somewhere around Brownsville, came through the Rio Grande with her husband.  She made it, he didn’t. Shot in the back.  Never saw it coming, which is the best way out there. 

She let the river bury him. It was the only way.  She sobbed as she hid in an irrigation ditch along a canal in the dark.   Sand hornets swarming her ankles, la migra at her heels.  She had to keep moving, see it through.  He’d been over already, stored away $800 that he’d saved up in over three months, put it in a leather bag and buried it for them.  Told her where it was  - and where I was - in case this happened.  And it did. 

When she dug it up, first thing she did was come find me.  She showed up at my door, empty eyes and bloody feet.  I opened the door and just took her in my arms and brought her inside.  She spoke so little English, and my Spanish was broken and backwards.  So, we didn’t speak.  I drew her a bath. She closed the door, sobbed in the steaming water, sobbed some more while the water drained out.  I could hear her. Deep, mournful cries of a woman who had lost more than I could ever know or understand.

I made her bacon and frijoles with huevos.  Black coffee.  While she ate, I drew her feet into my lap and put swabbed iodine on her cuts.  I put on an old tape I had of some Tejano band he’d given me as a gift.  La Mafia or something like that.  I thought it would make things better, if only for a moment, but I could see her eyes welling up and turned it off.

But selfishly, the music made me feel like I belonged in her world.   When he worked here, he’d come inside at night. We’d drink Blue Agave and he’d talk about her, show me pictures he kept in his rucksack.  His English was good, and the tequila was strong, and he’d spill out over the sides talking about her gentle nature, her devotion to Jesus, her devotion to him.  The way her dress brushed against her caramel thighs and her shoulders melted with the touch of his callused hands.  It was enough to split your heart wide open, a love like that. A woman like that.  

And now, she was here.  Here because she had nowhere else to go and I was one of those gringos who was willing to pay shit wages to an illegal who made it over the line and help him scrounge what he could so he could bring his family over.  His wife and his son.  “El corazon”, he’d say.  There is no son anymore.  He told me one day.  He said, “Barrio Azteca. masacre ” and I understood.  Knew the kid, not even a teen yet, met with something barbaric, the kind of savage thing TV won’t show you because you’d want to open the gates and invite every decent person south of Ciudad Juarez into your back door and hide them.  I don’t care what you believe, who you voted for.  What he told me goes on down there, it’s not right.  If you were them, you’d leave too.  You’d risk being scammed by the polleros, shot by la migras, dying in the daze-inducing heat.  Believe what you want, you’ve never had it like they have, I swear to God Almighty you haven’t.  So when another worker told him about his son, well, he only had one thing to live for after that.  He had to go get her and bring her over, even though he didn’t have much set aside.  Not enough to make a real go at it anyway.  

I paid him the best I could.  I fed him, gave him a bunk.  Let him drink my liquor and smoke my Faro’s.  We were amigos.  Not hermanos, but solid amigos.  He always got a fair shake. He never took advantage.  I hope I didn’t either.

When he went to get her, he said he’d tell her how to find me, that he hoped they would both return, but if only one of them came back, it would be her.  It would be her because if she didn’t make it across he would have nothing left and that would be that.

When her bony knuckles tapped on my door, I knew what had happened before I’d even opened it.  The timid knock a mournful death knell.  Her body fell into mine, wounded and spent. Even through the layers of riverbed caked on her skin, the matted knots of raven hair.  She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.  The eighth wonder.   Sunlight on the Sangre de Cristo.  

But she was confused.  Confused and lost, everything foreign.  Foreign to being a widow, foreign to being childless, foreign to being here.  Foreign to me.  At least in her mind, but not in mine.  I felt I knew her, or could know her.  I wanted to help her find salvation again, to gather up all the shards and bloodied strands and make something whole of them, something she could live with, if not make sense of.  None of it would ever make sense.  

That evening, she locked herself in the room he had once slept in, but I didn’t hear her sobbing.  I’d made a meal for her.  Puerco al horno with chile ancho and cilantro.  I slow roasted the pork all afternoon in a pan with some olive oil and lime juice.  I baked bread that was warm and soft and filled the room with a smell I hoped would take her somewhere back in her memory, somewhere safe.  I found a bottle of Alamosa Graciano I forgot I had.  It was as perfect as I could make it for her, but she never came out.  I knocked, but she only mumbled “No, gracias” a couple of times.  

I lit a candle that I took out of a drawer where I kept flares, matchbooks, and my flashlight.  I melted the bottom of it and stuck it on top of an ashtray I got at some five and dime not far from Fort Brown.  It said “Dia de Los Muertos”, Day of the Dead.  Grinning red skull with flaming marigolds for eyes.  The candle took to the ashtray and I lit the wick.  I asked God to bless the food and her, to bless her husband’s spirit, and her boy’s.  I sat and I ate.  I drank.  More than I should’ve. The silence, silence I always appreciated, was smothering.   That Tejano tape and a stack of old Townes Van Zandt records were all I had to fight off the emptiness of the plains, but I didn’t mind the quiet usually.   It was one of the reasons I lived here.  But tonight, it was almost more than I could take.  The ominous hush.  God’s silence.  The indifference of heaven.  Dry lightning crackling in a thunderless sky barren of rain, rain that was always needed but never gave in to gravity.  Somewhere faintly, the cold shoulder of the river rushed, mocking those who try to find passage where the Matamoros chalon once ferried daily.  

I wondered if she heard it too, the vast stillness, the hollowed out, windless night.  I stepped outside and stood on the porch.  I’d swapped the Alamosa for El Gran Jubileo, a bottle he and I never finished.  I finished it.  Finished it with gusto and gratitude that he’d been here, that he sent her to me.  That she was here, lost but not alone.  And that I was the one who would make sure she didn’t have to ever be alone.  She just had to let me in.  

I walked to her door.  She must’ve unlocked it while I was on the front porch.  That was all I needed.  She was on the bed, barelegged, a rebozo draped across her breasts and belly.  I lay down beside her with my boots still on.  

 “Bueno,” she whispered, in a voice broken by disillusion for where she was and who she was to become.  She put my hand on her naked thigh and held it there, then slipped the rebozo off her shoulders.  It was all she thought she had to offer to say “thank you” for refuge.  

I drank her in and thought about the possibilities.  Thought about the choices she had and the one she was making. The one I would make.

I took my hand from her leg, covered her with the rebozo, and let my arm drape around her weary shoulders.  I closed my eyes.  “No bueno,” I said.  “Buenas noches.  Buenas noches nos de’ Dios.”  

May God give us good nights.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

I Want to Wake Up: White Privilege & The Road of Good Intentions

When I saw U2's Zoo TV tour back in 1992, one song featured a series of seemingly random words flashing on video screens.  Provocative words, inspiring words, throwaway words: Sex, Abba, Tofu, Bomb, Chaos.  Then, phrases began to emerge:  Everything you know is wrong, Tread Softly.  It Could Never Happen Here.   Eventually, this gem popped up:  "Everyone is a racist except you."

I never forgot that line because, well, that's true, isn't it?  We never imagine ourselves as the racist, the homophobe, the misogynist, the xenophobe.  "I'm colorblind."  "Live and let live."  "CoExist."  They're idealistic sentiments...but I'm coming to realize at the not-so-tender age of 49 that they are merely a starting point.

I'm a straight white male.  I've never had to sit beneath the high throne of purported birthright privilege.  Society dictated that my kind was top of the food chain, and even though I was never comfortable with the notion, I certainly didn't suffer because of that widespread, albeit misguided belief.

On November 9th, 2016 - for the first time in my life - I experienced what it was like to be marginalized.  At the risk of overstating, feeling rejected for what I hold most sacred.  Millions of us felt it, to be sure.  To experience it for the first time at such a late age in life...I was ashamed.  Ashamed that I'd never truly stood on the shaky ground that quakes beneath the feet of those who are often looking over their shoulder out of a well-earned sense of mistrust in their fellow citizens.  Fearful of harassment, fearful of assault, bullying, or other abuses.  I knew all the words to Elvis' "Walk a Mile in My Shoes", but I'd never actually done it.   And Elvis?  Wasn't he just what America served up because the true inventors of rock 'n roll were deemed undesirables?   An immensely talented white country boy, but merely sequined seconds compared to Little Richard & Chuck Berry.

For more context, let me walk you through a mile in my shoes.  My entitled blue suede shoes:

I grew up in a squeaky white Southern Baptist Church.  It was here I first heard this horrible "joke": "What do you call a bus full of black kids going off a cliff?  A good start." 

It wasn't an everyday occurrence but it happened enough for it to feel like part of the culture, and the jokes were told - almost exclusively - in a slight whisper, as if there might be something about them that was - I dunno - horribly hateful?

It was a minister's wife that shared a rhyme with me and other teens that went:  "Watermelon watermelon, cadillac car.  We ain't as dumb as you think we is."

On another occasion, an adult churchgoer admonished the presence of Congressman John Lewis as the commencement speaker at my college graduation, saying "If I'd known the speaker was going to be that thick-lipped...well, I'll stop there..."     But I knew what the next word out of his mouth was going to be.

Additionally, I had our youth group president mouth the N-word at me throughout rehearsals for a church play, trying to get me to break character and laugh.

I felt queasy whenever this kind of talk was thrown around.  It didn't jibe with those red words in the New Testament, spoken by a gentle brown man who seemed incapable of condoning such hatred.    So, I must've been one of the good guys, right?

By the time I got to college, though, I'd discovered I had not, in fact, earned the title of "good guy".  I wrote an article for the school paper, in which I referred to playwright Tennessee Williams as someone whose lifestyle "I abhorred"...despite the fact one of my best friends and two of my favorite professors were keeping their sexuality under wraps at the school -a private Baptist college - for fear of being outed.

I provided a horribly racist overdubbed voice for an African American staff member in an interview when the original audio didn't come through.  A really pretty girl shot the footage, screwed up the audio, and said she thought it would be funny if someone did a "Fat Albert" voice to salvage the interview.  Cluelessly, I agreed, because I wanted her to like me.  Cluelessly, I took part in a truly hateful process that made me ashamed as soon as she played her final project back for the class.  Cluelessly, I'd just proven myself a racist.

By the time I got out of college, I'd learned a lot of hard lessons about how well meaning people could have HUGE blind spots where bigotry is concerned.  Believe it or not, despite being at a private Baptist college, I'd been exposed to a cross-section of students from myriad cultures and faiths.  I'd had professors who challenged my provincial understandings and forced me to reckon with the immaturity of my assumptions.

Graduate school led me to a series of playwriting classes with a feminist professor who pointed out so many deep-seated flaws in my well-intentioned viewpoints on men and women that I had to rethink ever gender assumption I'd ever made.  Shortly after graduation, I married a feminist, assuring I would never backslide.  I thought I'd finally woken up to injustice and was squarely on the right side of the battle.

My mid-20's, 30's and 40's were driven by a "tsk-tsk" attitude that shunned open racism, fumed at evident sexism, and scowled at rampant homophobia.  I assumed I'd attained a certain social enlightenment.  I wasn't smug, mind you.  I just thought, "Okay, I get it now.  I'm a straight white guy who accepts everyone...and that's how that works, right?  My work here is done."     After all, my heart swells when I watch Jackie Robinson footage, I tout Malcom X as one of my heroes, I bask in my beta-male identity.  I'm the spouse who is barefoot in the kitchen making pancakes for the kids while my wife is the one at Home Depot buying 2 x 4's.  I sported a red AIDS ribbon while weeping through "Angels in America", parts 1 AND 2.  How much more could possibly be done?

Then along comes this next awakening, one that made me realize my progress has been glacial at best.  Being open-minded and accepting, that's wonderful...for starters.  But we're at one of those incredibly crucial crossroads in history - uncharted territory for my generation - where good yet silent people will feel reverberations we've only read or heard about before.   It has been easy for me to detest the likes of George Zimmerman, but I am still likely never going to have to worry about being the one actually hunted down by a racist vigilante.

Shot in the street, fearful of being pulled over, holding onto your hijab on the subway, tucking a Koran beneath your shirt, hesitant to go into one bathroom or the other, darting from your classroom to taunts of "build that wall," bullied for your skin tone, your quiet faith, your wardrobe, your assumed identity.   At some point, every good person has to decide whether their response is "It's a shame that is happening to them" or "I won't let this happen to us."

For me personally, it's time to proactively ask those facing the worst kind of discrimination if they would like me to join them at the proverbial lunch counter, if adding my two feet to their march is in any way beneficial.   I've spent far too much time simply being comfortable with the notion that I was  one of those supposedly "woke" entitled people who empathized from the sidelines.  Unifying memes and yard signs aren't going to cut it anymore.   At best, it's sleepwalking.  At worst, it's being awake, but opting to stay in the warmth of my own bed while other's beds are burning.

There's that great scene in Spike Lee's Malcolm X in which a young white college student approaches Malcolm, explains her desire to support his cause and asks what, as a white person, she can do.  "Nothing," replies Malcolm as he walks away.  I get that.  At times, I'm not invited to the party.  At the Shambhala Center, there is a People of Color Sangha (community) and those meetings are exclusively for People of Color.  They need a space to be open, candid, and connected.  But when those doors open and the meeting is over, will I be there to meet them and say, "So, here I am, if you're looking for another ally"?   Will I listen, rather than assume I already know how to help?   Will I do the same for the women of the world, the LGBT community, refugees, immigrants, the homeless, and others who have spent the majority of their lives feeling somehow set apart?  Will I have the courage and patience to listen, as well, to those whose ideologies are different from mine, so we can find enough common ground to forge an agreeable path forward?

Maybe it's timely that the expanse between Election Day and the Inauguration encompasses  Christmas Day.  For it was Christmas morning when Ebenezer Scrooge had his own awakening, a metaphor for how we conduct ourselves with all humankind.   While Scrooge was an almost cartoonish cold skinflint, I can't help but imagine that Dickens wanted all of us to see the miser in ourselves rather than just the redemptive notion of a holiday.  And whether our emergence from our self-serving cocoons take place over many years or a single night, the experience of realizing one has to do something - one has this singular lifetime to make a profound difference - well, that's something, isn't it?

I feel like I've spent my entire life waking up to an awareness that left my previous epiphany somehow lacking.   I could beat myself up for not having had the empathy required to more richly understand the full catastrophe of life for those outside my comfortable bubble, but that doesn't serve anyone at this moment.   At this moment in time, it's simply about continually waking up, getting up, and being bravely present for those who would welcome someone to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.  This Christmas, all I want is the courage to do this.  All I want is to help move us closer to being a Culture of Compassion.  I want to be a part of a society capable of showing those who rule by fear that they are wrong, and invite them in to experience a different kind of privilege: the privilege of unburdening ourselves of our prejudices.

A little later in that U2 concert I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Bono & the boys played their "new" hit single.  It's since been heralded as one of the greatest songs of the past 25 years, largely because it offers an aspiration that I believe connects with more of our society than we realize.  There are more people who wish to be awake than asleep.  There are more people - on all 'sides'  - who hope for a common good than a fabric-shredding division.

The refrain goes like this:

One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we're not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
One, one.

We get to carry each other.

There's the invitation to enlightenment.  There's the true privilege.

Monday, November 14, 2016

I'm Your Man: A Short Story About Me & Leonard Cohen

No guarantees, but this may be my last Leonard Cohen post for a while.  I was saving it for last because it's a bit of an odd tribute.  In 2013, I released a collection of short stories (Buddhist Catnaps & Broken Down Hymns).  I wanted to write a story about Leonard Cohen for this collection, and I wanted it to be all the things he was:  darkly funny, offbeat, sexual, spiritual, earnest, sardonic.  It was a real undertaking to strike the proper tone.  Three years later, I'm not sure if I did, but my heart was squarely in the proper place.  

So, here's the truly tall tale of that time Leonard Cohen tried to steal my girlfriend...and then offered the kind of redemption that only he could.  There are a lot of references to Cohen lyrics and songs in the story.  A lot of non-fans won't get them, but that's okay.  I didn't write it for them.  I wrote it for Leonard.  And for myself.  And for anyone who ever took sanctuary inside his shimmering Tower of Song. 

I’m Your Man

I should’ve known better, I really should’ve.  Kirsten and I had only been dating for three months, a vulnerable phase in any relationship, as the sheen of newness begins to fade and you start to work at really accepting each other’s faults and consider giving it a real go.  It’s the dirty socks on the floor, the bacon cooked too crisply, the need for certain rituals, be they comfort or merely habit.  But we were showing real signs of promise.  I’d met her mom, for Christ’s sake.  Tests were being passed with each new sunset.

For the first time, I thought I might be willing to give up the freedoms that I’d always defined myself by to merge my identity with another.  There’d been other women, sure, other chances to forge something lasting, but Kirsten was the first in too many years who seemed to be able to tug me away from my juvenile tendencies and demand that I be the kind of man who lived up to the expectations of a world outside of my own uncharitable thoughts.  Still, though, something was missing.  She didn’t yet seem convinced that I was capable of the kind of love that could sustain the dizzying heights and all consuming lows that such commitment seemed to insist upon. But I’d run out of ways to prove it to her.  I kept professing how strong I was, but she seemed unassuaged. It was frustrating. We were standing at a crossroad, and decisions we weren’t even aware of were being made in the deep recesses. Each moment mattered, and that provided excitement and dread.  

Given the fragility of it all, it was not the time to introduce an outside force. It was not the time to invite ambiguities. No, it was not the time to let Leonard Cohen come visit.  

It had happened once before, and ended in disaster, but I wrote it off to circumstance.  After all, I was dating a woman named Suzanne at the time.  Of course she’d cave to the seductive lure of his trembling baritone trilling her name like some sotto voce Siren. When he left town, she began to follow him, city to city, watching him puppy-eyed at concerts as far away as London, Denmark, and Oberhausen.  As she saw him more and more, I saw her less and less.  The last I heard, she had rented a room at the Chelsea Hotel.  A friend told me she never gets out of bed, never gets dressed.  She just listens to his CDs, orders room service and puts it on Leonard’s bill, in hopes he will one day return to pay the tab.  

Years had passed since then.  Lifetimes, it seemed. Surely, Leonard wouldn’t come back into my world just to rob me of love again.  He was too much a gentleman, too good a friend.

Leonard had just finished a winter retreat - a rohatsu - at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, where he and nineteen others sat zazen for twenty one days.  He’d just renewed his bodhisattva vow to relieve the suffering of all other sentient beings in front of other students, his Roshi, and the Buddha himself.  Surely, he could be trusted.

Besides, Leonard was in a pinch, bouncing back from the financial mess his unscrupulous manager left him in.  He merely needed a place to bunk for three or four days before making his way back to Canada. “Friend, you won’t even know I’m there,” he whispered into the phone, a hypnotic sway to his voice.  It’s that damn voice.  I couldn’t say no.  

Kirsten was less than thrilled at the prospect of an intruder on our time together, especially given it was Friday and she’d had an exhausting week trying to keep her 26 first graders focused on an unnecessarily grueling standardized test. “I just wanted to order Chinese and melt into the bed with you, make you rub my feet while we watch bad TV.”  

I assured her that Leonard was the least obtrusive of guests, neglecting to mention that a woman named Suzanne had ever existed.  “Besides, surely you’ve heard of Leonard Cohen,” I chirped, now for some reason eager to impress her with the stature of my friend.  “He’s a very famous musician and poet.”

But she hadn’t.  Kirsten was one of those people who knew the song, but never the singer, and while Leonard had devoted legions of followers, his tunes weren’t exactly piercing the airwaves on the local Top 40 station, where Kirsten’s tastes still resided.  

I put on one of his CDs - “The Future”.  Perhaps not the best choice, as the apocalyptic title track plummets the listener into a harrowed summoning of a bleak world Leonard seemed to summon up from a place far south of Hell.  She winced at the growl of his voice, the darkness that seemed to envelope every murmured syllable.  At first, I was disappointed that she didn’t appreciate his ability to embody every circle of Dante’s netherworld balanced atop a rollicking melody line.  It was the alluring yet foreboding road where Satan met with the sublime, Pandora’s box in 4/4 time.  But then I realized this was, perhaps, the best thing that could happen.  She’d show him the distanced respect of being someone revered by our culture, yet not be drawn in by his charms.  She’d stay on her side of a locked bedroom door and he’d stay on his.  It would all be perfect.

But it wasn’t.  I never should’ve let her answer the knock at the door.  That was my second mistake.  

“Ah, you must be Kirsten,” said a shadowed figure, bedecked in black, fedora to foot, save an indigo raincoat draped over his arm.  It was that moment, as my eyes slid down to Kirsten’s bare legs, always a sight I drank in with joy, that I saw her left knee, and I’m sure of this, buckle.  She regained her balance as quickly as she’d lost it, but there was no denying the swoon.  A hit, a palpable hit. 

He reached his right hand forward, as if raising a glass in toast, and her hand, a withering frond on a palm plant, seemed to move without her awareness, as if pulled by the unseen strings of a devious puppet master.  He turned her palm up, gently kissed her wrist and whispered, “Entre deux cœurs qui s'aiment, nul besoin de paroles.”  I didn’t have to speak French to know it couldn’t be good.  

As her painted toes curled around the edge of our area rug, I swept in to break the trance.  “Leonard, so good to see you,” I said.  

“Ah, friend, your hospitality is so appreciated.”

“May I take your hat and...” I couldn’t believe I was about to say it, “your blue raincoat?”

He shook his head as if I’d just nibbled at low hanging fruit.  “I ask for such things, I know,” he said, handing me his outer garments.  “But I receive ten of these a week, gifts from admirers.  What can I do?  I donate some to charity, but I hang on to the odd one now and then.  This one is a Ralph Lauren, tailored in Italy.”

I turned to explain the joke to Kirsten, sure that the reference was lost on her.  “It’s the title of one of Leonard’s songs.  ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’,” I said, before realizing she was in some far away city - Paris, perhaps - sitting at a little cafe, sipping warm brandy as Leonard wove a tapestry of Zen haiku, before mounting a wind horse together and racing across the countryside, her arms cleaving to his chest, in search of the Philosopher’s Stone.  I might as well have been talking to a ghost.  

“So,” Kirsten said, eyes locked on Leonard as he unpacked a solitary suitcase. “How long are you staying?”

“Not for long, my dear.  Not for long.”  Leonard removed another black suit from his bag, identical to the one he wore.  He held the jacket aloft and a pair of doves flew from his case, grasping it by the shoulders and draping it across the bed in my room.  My eyes followed them with evident suspicion. 

“I apologize.  They’re presumptuous little creatures.  I can take the couch, of course” said Leonard.   

Before I could speak, Kirsten said, “No, no.  You can share the bed.”

Had she even realized what she’d just said?  Did it matter?  But I was determined that I wasn’t going to let this happen.  I jumped in, hoping I didn’t sound too desperate. “Yes, Kirsten and I can sleep out here.  The couch folds open.  It’s quite comfy.”

“Ah, then,” purred the poet.  “Everybody wins.”

“I hope,” I said.  “Would you like some dinner?  You must be famished.”

“I’ve been eating rice and miso soup for days.  I’m happy with whatever your generosity will allow.”

Then I realized I had little to offer a man of such cultivated taste.  Last time Leonard stayed with me, he was fasting, so it wasn’t an issue.  What could a 38 year old bachelor have in his cupboard that could possibly satisfy the hunger of a man who likely feasted on tender lamb, fresh greens delicately brushed in Tuscan olive oil and vintage Percarlo each evening?  As I stared into a cabinet, bare excepting a single serving of Campbell’s Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup and a pyramid of Vienna Sausage cans, I was embarrassed I’d even offered, humiliated by who I was.  The fridge was no better, a coffin for green things turned brown and brown things turned otherworldly.  

“Um...I can order takeout.  Italian sound good?”

When there was no answer, I turned to see if perhaps Leonard had nodded rather than spoken, no doubt saving his voice to woo Kirsten with a Lorca reading after dessert, but there was no one there.  The Poet and my girlfriend were both gone, and the bedroom door was closed.  

“Ah, Christ, not again.”  I walked to the door.  It was unlocked.  There were no secrets here, but there was a challenge to be sure.  My bed, my entire bedroom, in fact, was now perched some one hundred floors above, high atop Leonard’s storied Tower of Song, a rendezvous few could climb.  It was akin to scaling Everest, infinite staircases teetering one on top of the next, but I wasn’t going to let Kirsten slip away without a fight.  I began the hike, racing past floors inhabited by Yeats and Whitman, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.  The Velvet Underground bickered behind a splintered door on 58, Kristofferson burned copies of “A Star Is Born” in effigy on 66. On the 73rd floor, Henry Miller was scrawling profanity on the tower walls.  I could hear Phil Spector screaming in well deserved agony dozens of floors below as I made a final, breathless pass through the uppermost hallways.

Situated on a floor that seemed to hover within reach of Cassiopeia was Leonard’s room, sealed behind a door cobbled together by spice boxes and still beating hearts. Two sleek snow leopards stood guard on either side, but neither took the slightest interest in me as I nudged the door open and stepped inside. There was my Kirsten, stretched naked on a bed built of stone and fire.  She laid on her stomach, a single white dove perched on each wrist and ankle, the ankles I loved.

Leonard, fully dressed, had a nightingale’s quill, and was tracing poetry on her bare back, speaking it aloud as he composed.  There she lay, under his spell, as helpless as if the doves were shackles, a hundred floors high and a thousand kisses deep.  

“And I'll dance with you in Vienna,
I'll be wearing a river's disguise.
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder
my mouth on the dew of your thighs.”

I was doomed.  I might as well have leapt from the Tower, past the floors of lesser muses and sonneteers to the rocky shore below.  But I had to know if there was even the slightest possibility she could be lured back into my world, into the prosaic mundanity of our cozy lives.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the spell had not been fully cast.

“Kirsten?  Kirsten, can you hear me?”

She didn’t lift her head, but Leonard glanced up and smiled a humbled smile.  “I’m so sorry, friend.  I couldn’t help myself.”

“That’s twice now, Leonard.”

“We are born alone, and reborn alone.  Please don’t deprive me the humble pleasures that reside between,” he pleaded.

“What possesses you, Leonard?  Aren’t Buddhist monks supposed to take vows of chastity or something?”

“I sit.  I face the demons.  But the demons also face me.  Besides,” he began to say, but I finished the thought for him.  

“Yeah, yeah.  There ain’t no cure for love.  You know, you can’t recite your way out of every situation, Leonard.  There are consequences.”  I could feel something burning inside my chest, a heated blade boring its way through the chambers of that most overrated of organs. 

“I’m acquainted with the concept of karma, friend.  I’m also familiar with the unpainted walls of Sri Lankan monasteries, the taste of the dust on the shoes of the Christ, the heart of the meek, the sacrifice of blood, the sacred texts and the soiled linens of the destitute. I know how the unquenchable rush of sex roils like a pulsating river.  I know how to part the seas with the utterance of a single holy word.  I know precisely when the moon will capture the tides and what lines in the Talmud will stir G-d from His slumber.  I know too much, and that is my burden.  You know too little, and that is your good fortune.”

“OK,” I said, “that’s...what the hell does any of that even mean?”

“Precisely,” he smirked.  

Flummoxed, my shoulders slouching in defeat at the utterance of his elegiac Zen koan, I turned back to the door and accepted my fate, my foolishness for ever considering any outcome other than this.  My hand reached for the pulsating human heart that made up the door knob.  It was a long way down from the Tower, and I wasn’t yet sure whether I would walk it or leap.  Both seemed cowardly, both seemed a kind of death.  

“Wait,” said Leonard. “I have one final question.”

I didn’t even turn around.  “Yes?”

“Is your heart fully broken?”

Now I did turn, looking him square on, and for the first time in years, the first time in my memory as an adult, my eyes welled with tears.  “Ravaged,” I said over a trembling tongue, my eyes now looking past him at flesh I would never again touch, lips that would now find mine foreign and somehow lacking.  “Aching.”

“But broken?”

What was the point of this exit interview?  Why did he need affirmation of what was pouring so steadily from my sleeve, leaking out over the pierced chambers? 

“What do you have left to prove, Leonard?” I said, my voice dry and crackling at the edges.  

“What do you have left to prove? he replied.  I’ll ask again, because the wind at this altitude may have kept you from hearing my question.  Is your heart fully broken?”

I somehow found the words. “Yes, broken wide open.  Is that what you want to hear?”

A wicked smile rose from his sunken jowls.  “You lucky brokenhearted bastard,”   he said.

Somewhere high above us, a bell rang a solitary chime.  The doves released Kirsten’s limbs and gathered around the Bard’s head.  From his coat came a mighty rustling, the piercing of fabric and the tearing of flesh.  Two black, muscular wings emerged from his spine and began to flutter with so much might, I thought the entire room might be pulled into their wake.  The doves gave flight through an open window.  Leonard tipped his hat to me, and to Kirsten, who was now gazing up at us.  No, not us. She was looking solely at me.  I could see that.  Her eyes were alive, and they looked only at me.  

Leonard followed the doves through the window and disappeared into the darkness, another story higher, another vow fulfilled.  

Friday, November 11, 2016

Leonard Cohen: America in Three Songs

There's so much to say this week, about our nation, and about an internationally regarded poet who slipped away from us.

I'll save the politicizing for another post, perhaps.  For now, I want to share more of the lyrical genius of Leonard Cohen.  While he is regarded for verses that tap into the spiritual and the sensual, he also had the capacity to speak to our greatest aspirations and fears as as a society.  At his best, he somehow managed to weave all of these themes into one seamless song (see "Hallelujah", perhaps one of the four or five greatest songs of the past fifty years).  

Here are three song lyrics from Cohen that speak to that sociopolitical landscape, and while we may never hear these songs on the Fourth of July or at a Freedom March, they cover a broad swath of emotions, from cynical to idealistic to prayerful.

Here are "Everybody Knows" (the cynical), "Democracy" (the hopeful) and "Land of Plenty" (the prayerful).   I encourage you to seek these songs out so you can hear LC sing them himself, but for now, please enjoy this astounding poetry from a Canadian who saw America as a place brimming with both problems and possibilities.  

Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen 

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it's now or never
Everybody knows that it's me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah, when you've done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

DEMOCRACY by Leonard Cohen

It's coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It's coming from the feel
That this ain't exactly real
Or it's real, but it ain't exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA

It's coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don't pretend to understand at all
It's coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It's coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin'
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
Oh mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the Squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

It's coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It's here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it's here they got the spiritual thirst
It's here the family's broken
And it's here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

It's coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we'll be making love again
We'll be going down so deep
The river's going to weep,
And the mountain's going to shout Amen
It's coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
As time cannot decay
I'm junk but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA
To the USA

The Land of Plenty

I don’t know why I come here,
Knowing as I do,
What you really think of me,
What I really think of you.

For the millions in a prison,
That wealth has set apart –
For the Christ who has not risen,
From the caverns of the heart –

For the innermost decision,
That we cannot but obey -
For what’s left of our religion,
I lift my voice and pray:
May the lights in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.

And I don’t really know who sent me,
To raise my voice and say:
May the lights in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.

May the lights in the Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth someday.