Monday, December 3, 2012

A Feather to Dream On

Such an amazing dream, it is one of those magical ones to stay with me. I was with Dawn and we were binding our books. I was using two long black crow feathers in my binding. They were very slender and fitted into it longwise. I inadvertently left one of them up in the expensive tea room of a mall. The mall was all made of gold with gold-colored carpets on the stairs. There were no escalators. All the stairs were wide enough for twenty people and very high. I was walking up the stairs in my dancing shoes – heels – and a footman was watching me so I went very fast to impress him. When I got to the tearoom at last, the counter was closed and there were cases of pastries where my feather had been. So I went over to the stand across the way and asked the young man if they had any feathers. He didn’t ask me why I wanted a feather. He just said yes, what kind. And I told him a long black crow feather. So he said yes, they had a few – that the owner had taken them straight from the bird itself when he died – that he had been a beloved pet. And he said wait and went back to talk to the owner who was a very tall man with wavy salt and pepper hair and a long serious face. Finally, he came back with a small paper bag and when I peeped in there was an amazing feather – not as long as my other one – but beautiful – black and white – something rare. I thanked the young man and he asked me for forty dollars and my name. I told him. I gave him my credit card. He seemed awed by me for some reason.

There was something so strange and magical about the dream – the book binding, the feather, the boy asking my name. Can’t explain exactly. The feather mostly. It seemed like a gift from the Spirit World. And I didn’t want to use it in the book binding because the book would have to be perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Meeting a Psychopath

On Wednesday night, I left work early and took the train down to the city to an event called “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success” at the Rubin Museum.  It’s a museum devoted to the Arts of the Himalayas, and this was one conversation in a series called “Happy Talk.”  

The event was a conversation between Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Cambridge, and Michael C. Hall, the actor who plays the serial killer “Dexter” on Showtime’s popular series.

Since the Rubin Museum focuses on Buddhist art, the talk was designed to make connections between expert Buddhist meditators who practical spiritual fearlessness, and psychopaths whose decisiveness cuts through emotion.  Maybe this is where the happiness was supposed to come in.

Dutton talked about advances in neuroscience that can pinpoint areas of the brain involved in psychopathy, and written tests that can be given to people to see where they fall on a scale of psychopathic tendencies.

Michael C. Hall’s character, of course, would score very high. Dexter had recently mentioned the amygdala, the area of the brain he called “the lizard brain.” Dutton discussed how this part of the brain governs our emotional response to fear. In psychopaths, fear does not inhibit their ability to act.

Kevin Dutton had run tests on groups of normal people versus psychopaths. One of the tests was the famous “trolley” problem. It goes something like this. A trolley is running along the track toward five people. But you have a switch that will move the trolley to a second track where there is only one person. Would you throw the switch or not?

The people with psychopathic tendencies had no problem deciding to throw the switch. (Interestingly, none of them let the five people just die, though.) Then the test was given to expert meditators – Buddhist monks in Dharamsala, India, the seat of His Holiness Dalai Lama. The monks also had no hesitation making a decision that would save the greatest number of people.

Michael C. Hall discussed his character Dexter and demonstrated a lot of insight and intelligence about how he portrayed a serial killer whose victims are other serial killers. He talked about how he works with the character’s addictions and motivations. He discussed how Dexter was raised, and how even if he was biologically predisposed to psychopathy, his life experiences pushed him over the edge.

Dutton says that is exactly how it happens with psychopaths. And he also made the distinction between psychopaths and psychotics, noting that psychotics are functioning outside of normal reality and acting on their voices and hallucinations.

Hall explained how Dexter gets drawn into experiences that seem normal, and how he has to simulate normal emotions. The character even has a son, which for me is the only time Dexter seems to show real affection.

I am a constant viewer so I know Dexter better than most of my real-life neighbors. He has a code that he lives by, which is different from having a conscience, but I sometimes wonder if he has a conscience. When he makes his kills, he puts up photos of the people his victim has killed, and seems to enjoy the sight of his prey having to face the music. But is this the same as the compassion of the monks in Dharamsala? No way.

Sitting there in the audience, I suddenly remembered an experience I had when I was first studying Buddhism. I had bought one of those little pocket books that has the sayings of the Buddha. And I was sitting at a bus stop waiting for a bus to go to a lecture by a Tibetan lama on the power of compassion.

While I was waiting for the bus, a man sat down on the bench and plunked down his duffle bag. And we started having a conversation. We were the only people waiting and I guess the bus must have been late. We exchanged first names.

I asked him where he was going, and he said to see his daughter who lived out-of-state. He said he was divorced and didn’t get to see her very often.

I explained I was a student and I was on the way to a lecture.

I asked him, “What do you do for a living?”

And he looked at me and said, “You really want to know?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “I’m a hit man.”

I laughed. “Come on.”

He said, “No, really. You want to see my gun?” He reached down and unzipped his bag, showing a big gun nestled among his clothes.

“Wow,” I said, trying not to seem freaked out. “Does your daughter know what you do?”

“No,” he said.

“Well, don’t you think maybe you should find another profession? Something you could tell your daughter about?”

He said, “Actually, you know, it’s not so bad. The people I kill – they’re really the scum of the earth.”

I said, “But still …”

His bus finally came in sight, and my bus was still not there.  By now, it was really too late for me to go hear the lama. I pulled out the book of the Buddha’s sayings. I scribbled his name and a little message inside that said, “To help you find a new path.”

I said, “You need this more than I do.”

He took the book and hoisted his duffle bag and got on the bus.

A moment later, he dashed off the bus and ran over and hugged me. Then he got back on the bus.

So that was my first Buddhist encounter.

I kind of wished I could have related that to Michael C. Hall, but there was not enough time.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Song #1 and Song #2

Song #1

Each of us is a hollow bone
That can fill with the sublime truth
And carried on that wind
Our rascal selves

Our will o’ wisp trails
Insubstantial motes in a rolling wave
And when enticed into form
Again we know
The miracle of simple acts

Each step has rhythm
If we can find it
The call and response
Of life

Each of us
No more important
And no less vital
Than the notes in a symphony

It is the counterpoint
Between us
That makes the harmony

To find the common thread
In the frenacy
Of the marketplace
Is the gift
Of a master

One needs
A different ear

The melody of birds
In flight
The cacophony of monsoon rains
No less than crickets
Murmuring in the night

Or the rhythm of
Grass and leaves
Breathing in
The sweet sunlight

It is a kindness (music)
Some may feel
As touch

The common ground
Beneath all things
The essence of joy
From which we spring

We return again
Because the ending always
Makes us want
For more.

Song #2

And how can we not dance
When every part of us

And how could the bird fly
Without the wind?

Oh, let me be the flute
Through which your wind blows

And let me be the drum
On which your hands

Inspired by a concert – Zakir Hussain & Rakesh Chaurasia 10/7/12 at Skinner Hall, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY.

Friday, September 28, 2012

In dreams

In dreams we can be vulnerable or we can be the master.

Old friends come back into our lives and enemies admire us.

I always seem to traveling on a train or arriving from a plane

or looking for the library in a huge university building

or moving through one house and arriving on some unfamiliar street.

But in the morning it's all so interesting

even the room with the window looking out to a white sky.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Golden Child

My son was born to lead
And to abide
As all good healers do
The world around.

With what he has inside
His art, his mind -
Imagination and design
Are made to fit.

Compassion is the start.
Where beings cry
His heart beats
To the sound.

This endless kindness
Needs a happy mind
Consumed with ideas
And a lightning wit.

Like birds that flock
In droves across the sky
His spirit seeks
The highest ground.

When this gentle giant smiles
The molecules travel
Homeward bound
And lamps are lit.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bright Blossom of Hope and Despair

I plant my flag of fire
On the ground of my homeland
May the oils of my body
Keep burning the faith of freedom
May the ashes of my body
Protect the earth from unholy feet

May the blaze of my offering
Attract the notice of a bodhisattva
May the hero on his flying horse
Arrive to transform the snowland
To teach the wicked the secret of
An open heart joined to a wise mind

Why can’t my enemy understand
I am also doing this for him
Not just for my people
Why can’t even my enemy see
How sacred the mountains, lakes and rivers
How sacred the air and the sound of prayers
How important for our future?

If my burning has no result
Then at least I have made
Of my body a prayer
And the gold-red blossom
Of my offering
Will light the sky for a little while.

* * *

I dedicate this poem to the most recent immolations in Tibet – of Ngawang Norphel (22) and Tenzin Khedup (24), who set themselves ablaze to protest Chinese human rights violations, the ongoing rape of the environment and landscape, and the attempted destruction of Tibetan language and culture. According to news reports, as many as 42 have set themselves on fire since 2009, in protest. Tragically, most of these were young people.  (The photo is copied from Phayul, a Tibetan news source.)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rewritten History - A Recipe

Take one very fresh memory
Cut it carefully down along the vein
Preserving the petals for decoration later

Scoop out the pulp
Add a dash of wishful thinking
A splash of self-interest
And a cup of creative writing
Stir well

Bake at 350 degrees
Until a knife inserted comes out clean
And no pain is left sticking to the pan

Garnish with the petals
Arranged in the shape of a star
Serves one

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


We could be on a journey
The hazy morning
Hanging over the river

Green ripples
Answering back

Is the sky a single
White cloud
Or a sheet of muslin
Waiting to be wet

I feel enclosed
Encased with people,
My reflections confined
By convention

The rocking of the train
Is the only comfort

What thoughts do all these people have
What dreams and fears and aspirations
Nobody knows

We all sit in our cocoons
Like patient
Perambulating moths

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Love from a Distant Star

Between the interstices of our lives
our frail existences,
do you think we can communicate
more than the snail's dream
within the shell of memory?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sunset Swells to Storm (a Ghazal)

The sunset glitters on the water like a happy soul
We close our eyes and listen to the ocean’s soul

Upon the deck we hear the lap of breakers roll
The sound of waves is soothing to the battered soul

Feel how the mainsail tightens on its supple pole
The wild wind frightens each and every soul

The sun has fallen down a rabbit hole
The dark sky presses on the weary soul

That far-off hump of island is our keenest goal
The ship is pitching wildly like a wounded soul

She lists and tumbles in the frothy knoll
As high waves claim her cloth and timber soul

The sunlight blinds and blisters as it takes its toll
Upon our little raft and each beleaguered soul

I wonder sometimes if I could unroll
The sail that flutters o’er my liquid soul

If death is somehow preferable to suffering’s toll
If future lives be succor for a stalwart soul.


The painting is by one of my favorite artists - Albert Pinkham Ryder.


Instructions for the poetic form called a Ghazal:

1. Ghazal must be at least five couplets long. May be as long as you wish.
2. Each couplet ends in the same word
3. ALSO both lines of the first couplet end in the same word.
4. All lines should be of similar length.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

When I see a sky like this, my heart wants to burst with love.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Blue on Blue

The following are real photos taken of the springs in Northern Florida where I visited last week. These places are as magical, open-hearted and vulnerable as children, and they make us want to protect them in just that way. This is water - pure, free and clean - and it emphasizes the importance of this essence for all creatures. May the world's people have access to this water and may we protect it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

To Be With Trees

Sneakers have to be just right
Not too loose, not too tight,
Pedometer snugly on my hip,
Jacket and scarf for the long trip

Out I go, past the mailbox and laundry,
Past the playground and complex boundary,
Once on the sidewalk, with the cars whizzing by
I find myself smiling, not even sure why

Past the grocery and gas station, avoiding the traffic
I scurry across and get away from the racket
Up the steep road into back streets and then -
There it is! The oak tree, to commune once again

This old tree reaches stout branches up, up and up
And I lay my back firmly against its gnarled trunk
If I focus I see through the tree’s own eyes
Over rooftops and trees, to the mountains and skies

When the tree has informed me in her own language
I thank her and continue on down without anguish
I turn on the road and pass the house with the deer
It’s a fake one but it looks out at me with fake cheer

Then at last is the entrance to the pathway I crave
The trail which was once a railroad, now paved
But on either side of the path are more trees
More wise ones to talk with and hear their soft leaves

After some way, I stop to sit on a bench
There are insects and sparrows and even a finch
A butterfly colored in blue and dark black
Whizzes by as I get up and get back on track

At the end of my trail is a pond that in summer
Has two swans and ducks that are seen by all comers
But in winter, it sits under blankets of ice
And to watch the banks is still very nice

Returning the same way I came is my way
And I hope when I’m older I can do this each day
For now it’s a luxury only on weekends
But it helps me connect with the trees, my dear friends.