Friday, March 3, 2017

How Fortunate I’ve Been

It’s now plain to see how fortunate I’ve been
to have lived all my life in a liberal democracy,
where I’ve had opportunity to walk all the paths
open to me, and to play out without penalty
the many probabilities of all I’m suited to be,
never having to choose any specialty
or confine my mind to a narrow expertise,
missing the variety of my soul’s diversity.

That freedom to taste from a limitless plate
of experiences and great expectations—
a variety pack for one lifetime, compact,
when otherwise it could take nine or ten—
accelerates the pace of a spiritual embrace
and brings great numbers of souls turning home,
as few dare to do when tyrants mount the throne.
But freedom is rare in the long history of humanity.

Now our world, briefly free,
from nineteen-forty to two-thousand-seventeen—
which amounts to about a lifetime for me—
has relapsed into tyranny,
reacting in fear of liberal democracy
and the quarter it grants its enemies,
who grow strong in the absence of scrutiny.
But I’m too old to forget that I was born free.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reaching for the Stars, 1 and 2

1. Important Priorities

 Because so many of our civilized systems
threaten to collapse all at one time,
it’s important to set priorities.
What’s most essential? What can we cut?
What is feasible and what is not?
But think what we’re really talking about.
Even the Department of Defense has warned
that environmental collapse is a military matter.
When things reach that level of red alert,
it’s time to turn inward and repair the hurt.
All leaves of absence are hereby denied
until we’ve cleaned up the mess on our side.

Of course that’s just the opinion
of a tree-hugger who’d like to live to be 90.
But in a three-dimensional world like ours,
if our vertical plane can’t support us,
we won’t need our bodies, let’s hope we have souls,
to navigate another dimension of consciousness.

I propose an international reconstruction crew,
a full-time army of career volunteers
to rebuild in modern, resourceful ways,
the systems destroyed by the greed, crime, and war
our forebears in ignorance religiously pursued.
Something magical could be made to happen
on this Earth we’ve always half-feared
if we’d just be content to be where we are,
partaking in this great restorative work,
adopting collectively as our first priority
the preservation of our home, Mother Earth.
2. Guns in the Movies Always Seem So Cool

 I admired the gun fighters in old Western movies
who could draw so fast their hands were a blur,
the hero always getting off the first shot
a split-second ahead of the bad guy.
Guns in the movies always seem so cool.
Shooting people dead is entertaining and fun,
and so we the people became so used to guns
we’ve let them spill out of the movies
into normal, everyday life.
Even worshippers in church sometimes bring their guns.
I start to wonder if I should have one.
Am I getting scared of the dark?
Or do I fantasize of killing, too,
quick on the draw like Tim McCoy,
the best defense assured by being
the fastest gun in the West?

I’ll never be that, no one ever is,
or if they are, not for very long.
But it seemed awfully cool in the movies
I watched on our first home TV
when the only real guns I’d ever seen
were rifles for hunting, or shooting barn rats
or in holsters of policemen walking their beats.

Now decades have passed, it’s all different now,
and many like me, gun lovers when young,
want to put firearms behind us.
We’re tired of the fight
over who’s wrong or who’s right.
We want to get on with peace in the world.
We need leaders we can depend on and trust
to follow the visions of Gandhi and King.
War-mongers shilling for the right to bear arms—
to capture or kill any stranger at will—
make enemies of neighbors, strangers of friends,
isolate our dreams and drive us apart
as each woman and man runs for a gun
and shooters are everywhere, blocking the Sun.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Message from Beyond the Senses

(This poem received an enthusiastic reception at an open mic recently, with several fellow poets urging me to post it for general consumption.)

Message from Beyond the Senses

Silly boy who wants to be a man,
you practice how to kill an enemy
when you don’t even know how
to swing your own sword.
“It’s not a club to hack your way through,”
I want to say.
“It’s a wisdom which divides the false from the true.”
But I guess you’re still in training.

Now a new age is beginning.
You take the bold step to join in
rather than defend a failed past.
Clearly the world must be completely remade
or we won’t be here, either first or last.

Meanwhile, the rich save up to survive
the end of this present historical era,
leaving all of us to likely extinction.
And if only they can invent the right rocket ship,
costing billions of dollars to contrive,
they’ll escape to some other planet in space,
the remnants of our human race
still living to conquer, dying to survive.

But fast as our technology is moving,
driven by addiction to cash,
it’s not likely to advance enough in time
before the gates of the gated will crash.
This isn’t revolutionary talk,
it’s simply informed observation.
Any fool and his dog are already aware
this world is no more than a mirror reflection,
and what seems up is really down
and forward is really backward.
The joke is on those who think they can kill
to possess a paradise they never will.

We are more than our bodies, more than our souls,
and while competitions and fights can be fun
and abuse of power the ultimate drug,
we don’t have to live on that hamster wheel,
round and round, never to stop,
past wives and boy friends repeating themselves
over and over in life after life,
and no one for long ever staying on top.

Making peace with the past and the dead
and those who are absent from us
can readily be done in the head.
That technology is already given,
which no one has to invent.
And as, in the privacy of each of our minds,
we say what we now wish we’d said
at a certain place and time,
or undo something wicked we did,
the warrior in our heart relaxes,
relieved to withdraw into peace of mind,
where jubilee replaces our guilty back taxes.

How do I know this? you might ask.
I have a clairvoyant friend
who describes a world that once had been
and desperately longs to become again
with humans onboard for the ride.

Then whatever it takes to let go of your pride
will definitely now be extracted,
whether you’re rich as a lion, or poor as a rat,
or above or below, you can count on the fact
that the pressure is on to clean up your act,
even if your uncle sits on the board
or you’re the only child of a man so poor
he’s sold you into the human trade.
Victims and oppressors both must release
the other from the grip of false security.
Each one of us is alone and unique
in this strange world of bodies and sex,
yet we strive for a common identity
as we eat one another to stay alive,
with torture and murder thus justified.

But to live in this place intelligently
means crossing traditional boundaries.
Au revoir! Bon voyage! Bonne chance, mes amis!
Let the great migration of minds now begin!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Elegy for Athena Dying

 Part 1—A Teaching

 “The dead don’t leave us, we shut them out.”
I can’t remember where I read that,
but it comes back to me now as you lie dying.
You’re always by me these days.
If I change rooms, you do, too.
Otherwise, you only get up for dinner
or to relieve yourself outside.
You still wag your stump of a tail
whenever we come in the door,
still meet our gaze with soulful eyes.
I believe you’re content,
and I can’t fail to recognize
that your simple acceptance of your situation
is a teaching, a dharma for us all.
You’ve always been our Wise Athena,
the truest companion we’ve ever known.

One night, a bit in my cups
as I watched over your reclining form,
we connected, and you shared with me
as much as I could bear to learn—
speaking mind to mind, of course,
as you animals prefer—
about the canine-human bond
we’ve always had since the dawn of time.

You said we humans are complex beings,
part of the Earth, part of the Sky,
and without a dog to keep us grounded
our roots in the natural world would die.
We’d forget we’re meant to live on the Earth
and carelessly destroy the creation,
too clever by far but not loving enough,
without a dog’s intervention.
But only those who deserve dogs will get them.

And you said you embodied every dog
we’d ever had over all the years,
each teaching the lesson in different ways,
according to breed and our need to heal,
but never judging, always loyal,
faithful to the human pack,
and always, like any responsible dog,
just enough of a nag and a pain 
to make human beings take you outside,
which many of us wouldn’t often do
without a dog as our guide.

And in return for food and shelter,
and even more so with deep love,
you teach in the span of a dozen years
(which to a dog is roughly a lifetime)
that we, too, like you, are helplessly mortal—
one day a puppy, a grown dog the next,
then aging, then old, and finally at rest,
you break our hearts as you dramatize
how to live, how to die in life’s natural flow;
and though your cycle will end with our tears,
all the way through you live without question,
cooperating even with the slow pace of death,
accepting what happens until the last breath,
with a dignity none of us ever forgets.

That’s what dogs live for, you said,
lying by my chair that night
after your first breathing attack.
You told me other things as well,
but I didn’t understand them yet.
I was just glad you lay on the carpet,
snorting and farting and licking in dreams.
And though we dreaded what tomorrow could bring,
you were still there that night
and we still were your kin.

Part 2—A Conversation

After our previous philosophical discussion
you stabilized at a lower level of function
which lasted for a day or two
until you finally stopped eating.
Your mistress and I took turns as your nurses,
silently witnessing what we both knew.
Your compass pointed due West, toward Death,
and our job was to help see you through.

Off and on throughout that last day
I’d watch you struggle to catch your breath,
and I’d kneel by your side, massaging your back,
stroking your stout barrel of a chest,
and burst into spontaneous spasms of weeping
as I tried to ease your soul’s labor of birth—
free from mortality’s tyrannical curse,
cut loose from the tentacles of stubborn flesh.

“What can I do to help you?” I cried,
the words like a wail in my mind.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” you replied.
“I’m okay, it’s just taking some time.”
And lifting your massive old head from the floor,
surveying me with passive, droll eyes,
you licked my face between my nose and my chin,
thanking me over and over again
for taking you in, and now helping you die.

“But you needn’t drop to my side,” you said,
“every time I need your help.
It’s better if you use concentration
to imagine yourself sharing my burden.
What matters most is your intention.”

“You mean you can feel my intention too?
Are you that good at reading my mind?”
“I know your every thought,” you said.
“We all do but don’t pay much attention.
Why ruin a good day? Our lives are too short,
and your thoughts move too fast for reflection.”

You were quiet then for a little while.
I went back to my chair,
and soon followed you into your trance—
breathing as one in a cyclical pattern
of slowly more slowly until all breath would stop,
and a moment or two of silence would pass.
I’d wonder if you’d breathed your last.
But no, you’d start the cycle again,
draw a shallow next breath—
no more than you’d need to forestall your death.

“Why do you stay? Can’t you let go?”
I cried out as your weakness increased.
“She needs a little more time,” you said,
tilting your head toward your Mistress.
“I love you,” I cried, as your stoical eyes
returned my gaze with affection.
“I know. You both do, and I love you too.
But not all humans are as sincere as you.
The human being is the only creature alive
who can say ‘I love you’ and not mean it.”

As my vigil with you seemed nearing a close,
I reflected on what I was learning,
and without a doubt it all came back
to a revelation I once had on acid.
“All people are animals, all animals people!”
That was my clarion cry.
Now forty years later I’m of the same mind,
after my talks with Athena, the Wise.

Part 3—A Silence

The Sunset beamed in through half-drawn curtains
as I watched you from my rocking chair.
You lay on the carpet just a few feet away—
glassy-eyed, your head too heavy to raise,
your labored breath irregular, short,
and I saw you were seriously trying to die,
to finish what we both knew must be,
but you just couldn’t break yourself free.
Your mighty heart wouldn’t stop beating,
though your spirit was nearly gone,
and you had no more patience for your body weight.
You desperately dreamed of running free,
of enjoying a tasty dinner again,
of licking the faces of your best friends.
But none of that could happen now,
It was senseless for you to hang on any more.
We both knew it, we both agreed:
the time had come to make the call.

It was Saturday before Memorial Day,
an inconvenient time for crisis,
but we’d heard of a vet whose specialty
is “end-of-life care,” as he delicately puts it,
and he’ll come to your house whenever he’s needed,
in the middle of the night or a holiday weekend,
to end the anxiety and physical pain.
(There’s not much he can do for the grief.)

He came when I called within an hour and a half
after he’d rearranged his plans with his kids,
and we went through the medical formalities—
the papers to sign, what we could expect,
as he kneeled down to make you his friend.
But you knew who he was and why he had come,
as you placidly looked into his eyes
when he gently lifted your head.

Then it was time to get started.

You showed no sign of fear or regret
as he injected the tranquilizer in back of your neck.
We waited for it to take effect.
Alarmingly, you suddenly rose to your feet,
as if at the last minute you’d changed your mind!
But the doctor dismissed this ambiguous sign.
“An adrenaline rush is the first reaction,”
he said, as you staggered, then wobbled,
and sank back onto the floor again.
Your left paw was too swollen to find a vein
to inject the lethal dose in your blood.
But with the right paw the doctor succeeded,
and in no time at all I heard your last breath—
a short, soft snort with nothing that followed—
and that’s when I knew you were gone.
The doctor was surprised you went so fast,
as he listened closely to your lungs and your heart.
But I could see plainly the body in my arms
no longer contained its spiritual part.
Your solid, comforting warmth I could feel
had already begun to cool.
I didn’t know how I’d sustain the blow,
and I began to bawl like a fool.

After our business arrangements were done,
the vet took your body, packed in a bag,
away to the pet crematorium.
We could pick up your urn of ashes, he said,
once the holiday weekend was over.
I’ll bury them out by the garden, I think,
or maybe beneath the crepe myrtle tree
where you always went when you had to pee.

Now I miss you so much! Our home seems so bare,
and dying seems better than living like this!
The anguish of absence I can’t overcome,
like a knife blade stabbed in my gut,
and especially at home and the places we went
I could never count all the tears I’ve spent.

But then in a message I think came from you
I’m reminded of a story I heard long ago
of a monk who complained that his daily work
kept him too busy to be present with God.
“If you miss me I’m with you,” God said in reply,
and you said now it’s the same between us.
The scorching raw grief that singes my mind
is the love that assures our bond will survive.
You’ve only withdrawn from the world of the senses.
In the silence within you’re still near my side
as the sorrow of your passing disperses.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

My Cats
(This poem was written at Candlemas [Feb. 2], 2012, and is among the fifteen or so selections included in my touring show, Oceans of Feelings: A Concert of Poetry. For more information on that show, go here.)

My Cats: The Puker (left) and The Fattie

My cats are getting the best of me,
they think they run the house,
and if I assert my rightful place
as proprietor of our domestic space
I’m sure to feel like a louse.

The one overeats and pukes it up,
the other overeats and grows fat.
So, as I buy the food they so abuse
and also pay the rent,
it seems reasonable, at least to me,
to regulate their daily feed.

Instead of their bowls always full,
which is the way they like it,
I set meals at four a day,
with portions evenly distributed.
That’s breakfast, lunch, and supper
with also a midnight snack.
But neither of them likes the change.
They want to turn it back.

 The puker, with her owl-like stare,
who no longer pukes so much,
occupies my office space,
perched upon an open shelf
just behind my writing desk,
a few inches above my head.
From there she beams her evil eye
deep into my receptive brain.
“Feed me at once or you will die!”
Way more than any cat should claim!
I whirl in my chair,
snatch her up with a bark,
deposit her outside in the hall,
shut the door with a growl of a curse,
ignore her indignant caterwauls,
and try to resume my work!

 And when I walk about the house,
the would-be fatty, were it not for me,
runs back and forth between my feet,
desperate, starving, smooth as oil,
eyes cast up imploringly.
“Isn’t it time to fill my bowl?”
As I trip over her—damn near fall!—
and, lifting her up on top my foot,
flip her—humanely—to one side,
only to have her bounce back again,
weaving between my every step,
until I scoop her up in my arms
and deposit her on the lawn outside.

 I’m glad that summer is coming,
but I wish it here today,
so I could write outside in my yard
or over on the beach by the bay.
I think if my cats were much bigger,
with their claws and their needle-like teeth,
they’d plot to have me for their dinner,
making short work of their servant-in-chief.

But then, when they curl up in my lap,
satisfied that their feeding is done,
and purr, and seem so well-contented,
pleased with the home that they’re in,
I’m swayed from my irritability
and glad I’ve adopted them both,
so fetchingly peaceful and loving—
when they’ve gotten their way
and their bellies are full
for an hour, or two at the most.

Yet they sleep in my lap so adorably
as I scratch and stroke their warm coats.