Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Quaker Meeting (Tunnels 3)

(This writing is related to my last post, with a story in between them which was not ready to be posted)

These are just some of the memories that trickled through my mind as we made our way through the rain.  I wondered what the silence would be like, would my mind wander, would my mind be still.  I felt that in the past year I had been more anxious than before, that my base anxiety level was slowly rising as I aged.  I worried that I would get worse and worse, or at the very least stay this strange ball of nerves I wasn’t familiar with.  I asked myself, is this me now?  My worry only increased as I pondered this, and I often fell into a feedback loop of nervousness.  I was reminded of a line in one of Townes Van Zandt’s songs, a shame that it’s not enough, a shame that it is a shame.
I tried to find the cause to this change.  Was it from all of the years I’d spent working with anxious people?  Had their worries been so constant and normal that they’d washed off onto my own skin?  Was it simply aging?  I pushed these thoughts away and watched the rain hit my window and split off into endless varieties of streams that ran down the glass.
Soon we arrived at the parking lot.  We met Karena’s father and stepmother, the people who first took her to this small building many years ago.  Karena made the usual comments about how it had seemed larger in her memory, how the grounds in the back had felt like the biggest garden imaginable.  I stood beneath my hood where the raindrops made thin tapping sounds and looked at the shiny green leaves shivering.  Where do these places we knew as children go?  What wind carries them away?
We returned to the front of the building and entered a very small entryway.  Beyond the next doors a room open up.  Chairs lined the walls, very few of them holding people.  I only heard our soft footfalls on the rug and the shuffling sounds of our jackets.  After we sat down at the far end of the room I became aware of a slight humming sound.  Soon I was distracted the gurglings and babblings of a baby.  A slim, bearded man had his child in a front pack while he tried to sit quietly.  One might think the baby was unaware of the rule of silence at the Quaker Meetings, but actually you are encouraged to speak when you feel moved to.  Thus we sit in silence until someone stands up and shares something.  The child clearly had things to say, and maybe for this reason, I never felt annoyed or upset that my meditation was being broken.  The sounds were like that of the birds chirping, the wind in the cracks of the door and the rain outside our windows.  At first I tried to meditate, imagining my mind as a calm lake, and whenever  fish though jumped to the surface I acknowledged it and moved on.  This is easier said than done but that act in itself of observing is amazingly calming.  After awhile I decided that my mind didn’t need to be so clear to be here.  Maybe the Quaker let their minds follow the fishes down into the depths.  I opened my eyes and immediately found the source of the low hum I had noticed earlier.  Two large fan spun vigorously from the ceiling, their blades cutting the light cast from the bulbs to such an extent that the place where the wall met the ceiling appeared to be lit with light reflected from water.  The spinning is really a flashing, the flashing mimicking the way light plays on the undulating surface of the calm lip of a lake.  I laid my eyes on this light and felt slightly nauseas, most likely from the ratio of coffee to food in my body.  I held my gaze a little longer before closing my eyes.  Soon I was aware of a dull pain in the middle of my back, of itches on my forehead, my arm and my knee, and strangely enough, the weight of my eyeballs.  The strangest feeling I noticed was after leaning back slightly to adjust my body.  I found it increasingly difficult to keep my eyes closed.  They felt to be naturally pulling open, and I imagined I was on a ship, the sea wind whipping all about, and I was trying to hold a lowered sail down against the deck.  I released my eyelids and watched the watery light on the wall and ceiling across from me.
At some point, after what seemed a timeless amount of moments had passed. A woman stood up and discussed her feelings from watching stories about religious persecution on the news.  She ended with sending her prayers out to those people, especially Muslims around the world.  My thoughts on these people  somehow migrated back towards whales.  More specifically the extended familial structures of killer whales, groups that rivaled that of not just human families, but entire clans.  They travel in matrilines, an extended family based around the mothers, meaning they travel with their mothers, grandmothers, and cousins.  Specific sounds and travel patterns are passed down through the generations, making each matriline distinct from one another.  Each matriline swims together for the rest of their lives with very brief breaks to mate or hunt.  Groups of 4 or 5 related matrilines form pods, which, though they may split off for weeks or months, always link up soon again.  Groups of pods will come together to form a clan, made up of pods who can trace their lineage back a common grandmother.  They speak in similar, but not identical dialects.  Sometimes pods from different clans will commingle to form a community, though they don’t all speak the same dialect.  We have only observed these complex family structures in elephants and higher primates.  The similarities to humans continue with their breeding age of between 15 and 40, and, even more rare among within the animal kingdom, and even species of whale, the females live for decades after they begin menopause.  Their lives seem to be filled with much more than the desire to reproduce before they die.
The Yupiks of central Siberia believed that killer whales and wolves, we deeply connected spiritually.  According to their legends, they were the same beings, appearing as orcas in the summer and wolves in the winter.  In both forms they helped people.  As whales they assisted in the hunting of walrus and as wolves convinced reindeer to let themselves be killed by the humans who hunted them.  The chief difference between their shamanism and that of North America Eskimos was the extreme importance placed on the good treatment of sea creatures.  Even the killing of a whale could only be done by one selected by the spirits, and if successful the hunter gave the dead whale the respect of an honored guest.  Its spirit must be entertained by music and given food, in the hope that it will return again the following year.  These beliefs all seem to suggest a deep connection between all things in nature, where the spirits can become one animal, then another, and even remake themselves after death.  In this way death was rendered not as an ending, but simply veil, a tunnel to a deeper existence.  The Yupiks saw the sky as a curving arch, with stars burning holes through it.  Beyond this blackness was a space of light.  When reading this I was struck by something I had recently come across in a book on physics, which posited that, much like our watery globe, space my indeed curve back on itself, and that if one traveled far enough in one direction the would eventually arrive where they began.
      The First Peoples of Canada and the Americas called their continent Turtle Island.  In British Columbia’s Bella Coola, it was not Noah’s great arc that saved humans from a flood, but a Killer Whale who let the people live inside of himself until the water receded.  The orca’s desire to help may not have been simply altruism, but instinct.  Many of the first people’s believed whales were not only magical creatures, but some of the ancestors of human beings.  They forded the seas in their natural form or as giant canoes, looking for a special place to settle down.  Once a spot was chosen, the came ashore and, after taking on the form of humans, built a village.  In this way, festivals dedicated to whales are not just to appease magical creatures but to honor our ancestors, great travelers who willingly shed their mystical powers to become the human race.
As I sat in that large, cold, peaceful room of silence, and watched the watery light that reflected off the spinning fan blades, I began to not just imagine the whales from afar, but sink down among them.  I was no longer looking at the sun reflecting off the surface of the water from above, but from within below.  I let my mind loosen and travel toward the body of a whale, the beast that so enamored ancient peoples, Melville, Hart, Beale, Ellis, and more recently Hoare, and imagined I was far beneath the surface and gazing toward the strange dancing light that I could see but not touch.  As my deep breaths continued and my body became even more relaxed, my mind began to accept that maybe I was within the sea.  There was then a moment, it couldn’t have been more than that when my acceptance was so deep that I was filled with a panic that caused me to gasp, sit up straight, and break the spell.  I was simultaneously part of the sea, and thus home, and yet afraid of the crushing weight of water.
The brain does not distinguish between real emotions and those created by fiction, nor does the neuron fire differently when hearing music or replaying a song in your mind.  There is a wealth of experience and of living that goes on completely hidden from the rest of the world.  It is not so difficult to imagine that a beast such as the whale, whose environment is so different from ours, lives a life filled with hidden meaning, or at the very least, a secret richness.
When an hour had inexplicably passed, a man stood up and thanked everyone for coming.  He said he was filling for someone.  For a moment I thought this would protect me from being recognized as a new person, but he turned toward us and asked any new visitors to introduce themselves.  I scarcely remember what Karena said, as I was preparing my words.  When it was my turn to speak, I stood up and thanked them for having me.  I said that it was my first time at a friend’s meeting, and that I was able to relax, to sometimes let my mind rest and sometimes let it wander.
Afterward I walked beneath the bare branches, my eye being caught by fragile drops water that survived the ending of the storm.  I imagined I could see the world on the ground taken into its rounded shape, and behind this image that of the gray sky.  The water, like a window, simultaneously portal and reflection.  I smiled at the other who made their way next door to enjoy a potluck lunch and conversation.  I wasn’t ready to join them, possibly because I wanted to extend the solitude a little longer, and I began to think about how these people differed from what I had imagined them to be.  The word Quaker calls up images of men with large hats, much like on the oatmeal container.  Many of the images correspond with those of the Amish; sitting in a horse drawn carriage, long mutton chops, living in moderation and preaching peace.  I didn’t know that their most accepted name was The Religious Society of Friends, and that the term Quaker may have originally been used to mock them.  George Fox, a founder of the Quakers was taking before a Judge on the charge of blasphemy.  Fox kept a journal, where he related that they were called Quakers for asking other to tremble at the word of God.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Whale (Tunnels 1)

I have some new writing but it isn't ready to post.  Here is a project I've been working on, combining
a few of my interests, and many of the topics of my blog, into a narrative around the theme of how we are fascinated, drawn to, and ultimately shaped by what we fear the most.

The rain was intermittent as we drove south from San Francisco on a Sunday in the Winter of 2011.  The sky had the thinnest of gray clouds, the hue bordering on white in many places. The bushes, trees and grasses blurred together as Karena drove us toward Santa Clara to attend a Friends Meeting of the Quakers.  Her father and stepmother regularly attended these gatherings, and since I had never been to anything of the kind I was curious to see what it would be like.  I have heard that most Quaker events are filled with silence, one moment stretching into the other in a room full of people sitting quietly, meditating in a way, and speaking only when they felt moved to do so.
The rain came and went on the windshield, like water sloshing in and out of a tide pool in the early morning hours.  I found myself drifting into a long neglected memory from childhood, when, as a boy, I stood on a beach in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, and looked out into the ocean.  A large group of family friends used to go camping together around the Bay Area.  They all had children who went to, or used to attend, my nursery school.  My friend and I had left the group, and ventured out into the woods leading to the ocean.  We found tall trees filled with naked, horizontal branches of a thickness perfect for climbing.  One could be 50 feet up the tree with little effort and even less fear of descending.  Near these trees were old bunkers, the kind of which dot the nearby coast, remnants of a time the United States felt the need to protect its borders with machine guns and mortar from invading ships.  Some of these rooms were blocked off, keeping us from conditions deemed too dangerous, but most of the rooms we were open to exploration.  Each one was empty, some flooded with ocean or rainwater, but the act of exploring was perfect for make-believe.  Just to the east of these barracks was a tunnel that went directly to a small beach that faced The Golden Gate Bridge to the east, San Francisco to the south, and the infinite expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the west.  I can still recall walking through this tunnel for the first time, and though I could see the light at the other end, feeling much more afraid than when I entered the blackness of the barracks.  I believe this is because I could see the outside of these buildings, and I was past the magical age where I believed the inside of a house could be infinitely bigger than the outside.  I was also of the very next age where one makes a point of not believing in things like that.  Maybe this is why, as we walked through the wet and sinking sand between the climbing trees and explored barracks toward the roaring sea, I didn’t tell my companion of the slippery fear the was rising up to me at my feet.  I can’t remember how I made it to the end, I only remember the wind hitting my ears with a violence one imagines when sailing across the sea.
I think it was more than trying to save face with my friend that drove me forward.  In spite of, or perhaps because of my fear, I was also, simultaneously filled with a powerful curiosity.  It is strange how pulled we are toward what we fear the most.  I pulled myself against the wind, toward the water.  For a moment, just a moment, somewhere near the middle, I imagined water gushing into the cave.  In my daydream I wasn’t pushed the dozen or so feet out towards the barracks, but was suspended in the dark waters, weightless and alone.  This especially was frightening because I never learned how to swim, and the thought of floating deep in the water felt akin to being lost in space.  Even today, I am filled with a deep fear that expands within my entire body when I imagine being submerged.  It is the inverse of claustrophobia, the fear of being trapped in an endlessness.
 Then I am out of the tunnel.  The wind lifted its embrace and instead became a calming breath.  Now out of the tunnel I could hear the waves grazing the shore.  Though the ocean spread out to the right it didn’t seem so open and expansive.  To our left the rust colored Golden Gate Bridge reached toward the sky, dominating the view.  The city beyond it appeared small.  Hills hid most of it, and the tallest buildings were dwarfed by the bridge and the distance. 
            Jason began laughing excitedly and pointing.  I squint my eyes, looking beyond the reflecting suns nearby to the blue waves a football field away.  I could make out a dark shape coming out of the water, then submerging.  It was the first time I saw a whale.  We were too far away to be struck by it’s magnitude or beauty, but I knew all about whales, had read about them and watched science specials on PBS.  They seemed to have intelligence that equaled out own, but lived in the alien depths.
The whale itself that day didn’t strike me, but like a symbol of something, it brought up all of the things I thought and felt about those great mammals of the water.  It’s a whale, I kept saying, over and over again.  We watched the same spot on the moving water for five, ten minutes, barely moving, Jason’s arm still slightly extended out, our chests heaving from the excitement.
            As an adult I continued to study them.  Initially my fascination was with the Blue Whale and other baleen whales.  This class fit in more with how I had always imagined them.  Massive and kind, they sing through the water in beautiful but alien tones.  Instead of teeth they have baleen, like a fine-tooth comb, that helps them catch krill.  They seem like gentle giants, big and smart dogs, our secret companions, that fills their lives with secret beauty.  Somehow the fact that these krill were fish escaped me, and I imagined whales as vegetarians, the antitheses of the murderous shark.  These may have originally be based on drawing of dinosaurs in books I loved as a young child.  The carnivorous Tyrannosaurus Rex and Alosaurus were the villains of the prehistoric world, while the nice vegan Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus and Triceratops were simply trying to eat and live peacefully.  Most likely, I anthropomorphicized sea creatures in the same way.  I don’t blame myself entirely.  If one looks beyond that one dinosaur books, there are hundreds of others, as well as television programs and films, mostly for children, that demonize predators like sharks and t-rex’s, and, to a lesser extent, wolves, most likely because of their similarity with their cousins, our best friend.  Though I understand how imagining other animals to think like humans we would exaggerate certain characteristics that are already there so that a story feels right on a gut level, it is curious that we don’t associate ourselves with the power predators, the meat eaters.  Possibly it is ingrained in us from thousands of years ago, when we were hunted by larger carnivores, or maybe we just prefer to think of ourselves as peaceful people, the kind you might see in the paintings on pamphlets from Jehovah’s witness.  These tableaus of lions and lambs and black and white people always struck me as strange because they seemed to not only solve humanities problems, but those of hungry animals who probably can’t conceive of a world without the food chain.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Fog

Here is a story I've been working on.  Any comments welcomed and appreciated!  Inspired by the writings of Oliver Sacks.

The Fog

            A dense fog came in from the sea, poised above the houses just a few blocks away, hiding the rest of the world.  Near the border, where the city became nothingness, Colin could make out the wisps of vapor, running like ghosts, as the fog negotiated with open air how far it would creep.  He knew if he approached the fog his view would penetrate it.  He just had to get there.
He scratched his sandpaper chin, surprised at the stubble.  This place is terrible, he thought, it doesn’t even have proper mirrors.  And this glass.  He reached out and touched the window, his focus shifting to the surface itself, where a small grid of threads appeared, the hidden but not quite invisible strength of the glass.  As he did this he saw a man outside, suspended in the air, a flying man who has escaped.  First he felt excited, then a sinking feeling, when he saw the man was hovering, maintaining a constant height.
“Hello Colin,” a voice said behind him.  Colin straightened, first afraid the person behind him would see his secret angel, then let down to realize that the speaker was who he’d seen, apparently hovering, in the window’s reflection.  He turned around.
The guard that called himself Steve was rolling his weight back and forth between his heels and toes.  Colin imagined his thoughts; “Heel, toe, heel toe.”  Colin buried his thoughts of escape, lest his own thoughts could be divined so easily.
“Good morning, Colin.”
“Nice Day.”
            “Is it?” slipped out of Colin’s mouth.
            “Sure.  I like the fog.”
            “Or course you do.”
            “Love the fog, man, hate sunny days.”  Mr. Davis’ high-pitched voice slipped into the room just before his body.  Colin grimaced to himself, wondering how often he’d be snuck up on today.  Mr. Davis was also the only person Colin had shared his plans with.
            “Mr. Davis,” Steve held up both hands in a strange motion, as if preparing for a hug or miming the lifting of a box.  He looked vaguely like a robot, his arms moving together.  His programming revealed itself.
            “You like the fog, Mr. Davis?” Steve asked
            “Sure I do.  I run hot and I don’t want to get burned.  Hard being out there, connecting these I-beams.”
            “Where do you think you are, Mr. Davis,” Steve asked, then gave me a malevolent wink.
            “You should know Mr. Kowolski, I’m here laying the frame for another one o’ these high rises here on Madison Avenue.  Don’t think I don’t appreciate the job.  I hope you know I take it very seriously.”
            “Who do you think I am, Mr. Davis?”
            “Why, Mr. Kowolski, the foreman.  But I’ll stop dillydallying as you like to say and get back to…”  Mr. Davis looked down at the floor, and then around the room.  “Where’s my hammer?  Where am I?”  He looked back at Steve.  “I thought I was outside.  I’m not though.  And you aren’t Mr. Kowolski.”
            “No,” Steve said.
            “Course not.  I see your uniform.  You the mailman.”
            Steve smiles.  “No.”
            “A doctor?”
            “No, Mr. Davis.”
            “Of course not.  You’re Al Grayson, here to fix the plumbing.  You’d think I could do it myself, but I was never good with pipes.
            “No, Mr. Davis,” Steve said.
            “Well, you must be my neighbor, Don.”  He looked at Colin.  “And his father.”  Colin grimaced.  He wanted to grab Mr. Davis by his shoulders and shake him and yell I’m not the old man, you are, but what would be the point?  He’d forget the whole thing in a few minutes, as he had already forgotten his entrance into the room.  The poor bastard was standing on a steppingstone over to sea of his memory, creating imaginary stones as he went along.
            Steve’s lips stretched into a gargoyle grin.  “My father?  What an honor.”  He winked at Colin, who quickly looked down, afraid to hold eye contact too long.  “Well, I’ll let you two catch up,” Steve said, and Colin watched his shadow slide from the floor.  Colin looked up slowly, afraid he might still be there, crouched and holding on to the ceiling.  He was alone, except for Mr. Davis with his perpetual furrowed brow and half grin.  Somewhere, deep down, did he realize how hard he was working to stay in the present, or did he only know on the surface, between his eyes?
            “Freddy,” he suddenly said, breaking Colin’s gaze, “going to the pool hall?  Wish I could but I’ve got work to do.”
            “Yes, of course,” Colin replied.  He saw no reason to hand Mr. Davis what would only slip through his fingers.
            “Running away are you?”  Colin’s eyes darted to Mr. Davis, then the hallway to see if anyone overheard, then back to Davis.  Had he remembered Colin’s plans?  Why had he been foolish enough to vent, prideful enough to boast?
            “Have you told anyone?”
            “Course not,” Davis said.
            “Well, keep quiet.”
            “Sure Jimmy.  Wish I was going with you but I have to take care of my lil brother.”
            “I could pack you some peanut butter and jelly.  Wait here.”  Mr. Davis walked into the hallway, looked both ways, then vanished, in search of the kitchen of his childhood.
            Colin’s eyes held to the last spot he’d seen the man, making sure he didn’t reappear, or maybe Steve or that other one.  There were only white walls and linoleum, bathed in fluorescent light, and sounds whose echoes merged together.  Colin closed his eyes, releasing the breath he’d been holding.
            “I’ve got to go now,” he whispered.  “I’ve got to get out of this place.”  He looked out the window one last time, first at the ghostly wall of fog, then bus stop out front.  He didn’t check his pocket for change nor grab an overnight bag.  He simply walked out of the room and down the hallway toward the stairs with the last two words “this place” bouncing around his head.  He paused at the door, his fingertips resting on the wood.  An image flashed in his mind of a man standing just where he was, pushing away the guards and screaming for his parents.  Was it Davis?  No, one of the others.  The apparition faded and he pushed the door open.  The stairwell was as full of silence as the hallway of echoes.  He leaned forward and saw, 2 floors below, the light coming through the window of the front door.  He would be that light now.  He stepped quietly, afraid of his footsteps, and soon was running through the light, pushing the door open, catching his breath at the bus stop.  He checked his watch.  All he had to do now was wait.

The shadows were lengthening.  The afternoon sun had burned off most of the fog, and had now dipped below its frosty layers.  Colin squinted his eyes.  His sighed and leaned back.  The wind was blowing and though he was protected by the kiosk, he watched it dance with the leaves on the trees across the street.  Staring down into the pavement he suddenly realized that there were dozens of ants running around, seemingly randomly, fast and direct.  Colin felt calm watching them, so calm he didn’t hear the hydraulics or the door, or the soft footsteps.  A man sat down next to him.
            “Hello,” the man said.
            “Hello,” Colin said.
            “Beautiful day.”
            “Yes,” Colin said.  “I love sunset.”
            “Do you?”
            “Yes.  Look how the sky turns orange, the sidewalk even.  The skin on my hand…” Colin looked down at the orange tint on the back of his hand and his fingers.  He became aware of the wind, not a cold wind, but not a warm one either, and the impending night.  He wrapped his arms around himself, pulling his bathrobe tighter around his body.
            “Want to come inside,” the man said.  “Have some coffee.”
            Colin nodded, but was looking down at the ants again, who were circling the man’s shoes, confused by the appearance of something new. 

Monday, May 2, 2011


I had a few different feelings when I heard about the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of SEAL Team 6.  I felt relieved and a little giddy, but also strange, as if I shouldn't be feeling too good at the death of someone, even ObL.  Not because I felt bad for him, but for us, all of us, those that died that can't be brought back, those who lost loved ones, and all of us here, who still feel good when an eye is taken for an eye.  I have tried to have acceptance for everything and everyone, not to make excuses and say it's okay, but to accept it.  I mean that in the sense that terrible thing are real, they happen and are happening, instead of "I wish that didn't happen I don't want to think about that happening."  I have tried to have compassion for everyone, no matter what, because when we start using our emotions to decide who we should have compassion for and who we shouldn't, that's when people start committing genocide.

So I've got all my ducks in a row to hope for bin Laden's capture and trial, even if emotionally maybe I'd rather he just be killed.  Still, I never imagined he would be captured.  Some people are so hated, so reviled, so wanted for vengeance, that one must accept that they will stay hidden or be killed, with nothing in between.  I have the strange feeling that bin Laden was one of those cases, and even if I can somehow have sympathy for him and those harboring him, and on some level hope he could have been captured alive, I feel like to impose that on others is a stretch.  I do hope we can all have sympathy for all things, for the reasons mentioned above, but I think, right now, we live in a world where vengeance is just a little stronger.  What I mean to say, and it is difficult to find the words, is that my philosophy of compassion must make room for the compassion for those who want vengeance.  Thoughts?