11.12.2018

PHIL'S MOUNTAIN

My first published drawing. I did this quickly on ZenBrush software, listening to Phil and Lee talk.  
[Like I say many times, independent publishing is a remarkable adventure, taking Lee and I to places of the imagination and spirit that we would only visit through the journey of being publishers at Cinco Puntos Press. That's how we met the Phil Connors, a writer in the great tradition of Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, Charles Bowden, Doug Peacock and so many other heroes of mine. Writers who have given their lives to "Wilderness" as essential to human experience. Without it, we are lost. In October 2018 CPP published Phil's third book, the now much celebrated A Song for the River. A few months before its publication, that intimate process of working with an author led us up to his mountain, Phil's Mountain, in the Gila Wilderness where he has been a fire lookout since 2002.]

Phil Connors, checking in and doing his job atop his mountain. 
July 2018, Friday the 13th.

Lee and I entered the Gila Wilderness, hiking up a ridge line in the Black Range of the Gila Wilderness to what I call “Phil’s Mountain.” [Note 1] Our friend Phil Connors, who has been the summer time National Forest Service Fire Lookout up there since 2002, had invited us to join him for two nights in his little cabin perched at 10,020 Feet above sea level. We didn’t even have to carry much in. Phil promised us a warm bed to sleep in, good food, mountain silence and great conversation. He kept his promise ten-fold.

It’s a five mile hike and an altitude gain of 2,000 from where we dropped off the car at Wheeler Pass west of the little village of Hillsboro, NM. Not so much for younger folks, but Lee and I are in our 70s. We looked forward to the journey with excitement but some trepidation. We added to our workout regimes—Lee added the steep hill in McKelligan Canyon to her morning walks with her walking buddy Martha, and I wandered up the rocky trails in the Franklin Mountains. We both wanted to be ready.

From El Paso there’s two ways to enter the Gila National Forest in which the Wilderness is nested. One way taking the I-10 to Deming and go north to Silver City. But our preferred route is to go north through Hatch, New Mexico, so we can spend an evening in the wonderful Black Range Lodge in Kingston NM, getting acclimated to the higher altitude, enjoying a good night’s sleep and having a wonderful hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns and homemade bread. Then we began our journey into the deep and complicated geography those extraordinary mountains. With all our fooling around, it wasn't until 10am when we shouldered our very light packs and headed up the trail.

Our journey was to take us through the burnt trees and stubble left behind by the ferocious Silver Fire of 2013, a fire that required a helicopter to pluck Phil from his outpost.  We walked through the rebirth the forest being, all sorts of plants and habitat  sprouting from the stubble and ashes of the monstrous fire. We were late. We pushed ahead. The first couple of hours, except for a couple of bumps, the trail is pretty easy—a gradual incline, damp earth, wonderful views on either side of the Black Range Ridge the trail followed. Lee was proud. She even said something like, “I think Phil was fooling us. This is easy!” She soon learned that the mountain gods have ears. A few minutes later the drum rolls of thunder started tracking us up the mountain, herding along dark and darker clouds like obedient cattle. Then the rains came. Drizzling at first, holding off long enough for us to put on our raincoats. The storm began to pound us. The trail, of course, turned rocky, and the waters transformed it into a small creek, the two of us wading upstream. Weird. The rain kept coming, we kept walking.

Halfway up, we met two women―a mother and daughter―coming down. They hadn't made it to the top. The rain pushed them back. We quickly compared notes in the rain, then moved on. A minute or so later the trail crossed over a massive rock slide, but thanks to the 1930s CCC and wilderness ingenuity, a stone wall carved into the mountain made the crossing easy for the old folks. No concrete, just stone one on top another, ten feet high, leaning in against the mountain, all these years. To build it, the workers had to first pull away stones to clear away for the path and to make space for the wall, then using the same stone, build the wall. It’s wilderness, so it’s all done without machine, just picks and shovels, hands and arms, muscle and bones. And here it is, 80 or so years later, still doing its job. I wanted to take a photo, but Lee wanted to push on. She was right. It was raining and we were getting cold. We stuffed a peanut sandwich in our mouths and kept walking, sloshing along the trail—one step after the other, one step after the other. The next breath, and the next breath. It’s the only way to walk a straight line up a crooked mountain. That’s what the ancient mountain monks of China always said, drunk and laughing at fools like us.

Another 45 minutes or so, walking across a saddle, the Gila Wilderness to the west, the valley of the Rio Grande to the east, the rain clouds above, the mountain beneath, the rain coming down, I heard something behind me. I couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from, cocooned inside my raincoat. Something was close behind me. I turned fully around. Shit, it was Lee, passing me. “You’re walking too slow,” she said, as she passed me. Up she went, and for the rest of the journey, there she was in front of me, maybe 20 yards or so, pulling me along by her very presence. I was proud. She was my guide up the mountain.

Later she would say, “I was cold, I was tired, and I knew Phil was up there warm and dry in a cabin with a fire going. That’s all I needed to know.”

Phil’s Mountain is like every mountain, the last part is the most difficult. The climb is steeper, switchbacks carrying us back and forth through the tall and very wet grasses of summer. Now the forest was huge around us, the trees untouched by the Silver Fire.   Wild raspberry bushes grabbing at my hands. The rain washes the red blood down into the ground. I’m counting my breaths, counting my steps. Breathing in, breathing out, heart pounding. I have to stop every hundred steps or so. Catch my breath. Then it’s every 50 steps. Every 10 breaths. I know we’re close to the top. But the top never seems to come.

Have we gone too far? We keep going. Lee’s up ahead, looking around. I look around too. Something blue coming down the mountain. It’s Phil in his blue raincoat. Bearded, a big smile on his bearded face. He came down looking for us. Yes, we had missed the first trail up to the top. It was back there, wrapped around a thick tree. “Not  to worry. There’s another trail a bit further.” And soon after a hundred yards or so, we open up to the big meadow of his little cabin and the presence of the tower standing like a skeleton in the drizzling foggy daylight above us.

We were home atop Phil’s Mountain.



His is a little house, truly a casita, maybe 14’ by 24’, the living space with a small bedroom tucked into the corner—Phil’s home, truly, the way he knows every nook and cranny of it, like the captain of a small sailboat where space is precious. For those two nights, he made it our home. That’s how we felt. Phil had the fire going, a clothes line ready so we could begin drying out clothes and our shoes and socks. Coffee was brewing, welcoming conversation, good stories, laughter.


When we got warmer, we climbed the steel staircase up the tower, through a hatch door, and into a small room of windows 50 feet above the ground. It was spectacular. Phil pulled down a map pinned to a piece of plywood, showed the tools of his trade for triangulating the position of a fire, and pointed out the mountains and landmarks in the great vistas around us, all of it huddled in clouds and fog.

Lee, because as editor she had read Phil’s book so many times, asked about mountains and people, the sad but enduring stories that are the subject of his book. The conversation wandered here and there , but never far from where we sat on Phil’s Mountain, the Gila Wilderness and the wild river that runs through. These are the body, blood and bones of Phil’s book, his understanding of himself and the world. The earth and the sky above. Human beings are simply brief sparks of light. This is a place for teaching ourselves the depths of scale and time.

The light slipping away, we came back down and Phil cooked us a wonderful hot dinner, talking while he chopped and diced, measured and simmered, all the while swapping stories, laughing—high country performance art at its best. The dinner was delicious. And the encore was homemade peanut butter cookies and a shot of whisky poured over a cube of ice. We were roughing it, baby. I giggle now, writing this, even to think about it.

The words and cadences of Gary Snyder’s poem “Rip Rap” drifted through my brain.
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
  placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
  in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf or wall
  riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
  straying planets,
These poems, people,
  lost ponies with
Dragging saddles --
  and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
  four-dimensional
Game of Go.
  ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
  a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
  with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
  all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.
We were exhausted. Aching bones. Sore muscles. It was early for us but we were ready for bed. Phil was kind enough to give up his cozy bed for the two old people. He put a five gallon “piss bucket” beside us in the little room so Lee wouldn’t have to make nighttime treks through the cold to the outhouse. I am no fool. I likewise took advantage of the excellent facilities. Three times, in fact. Phil, for his own lodging, decided to set up his tent within a circle of stones and beneath a canopy of giant ponderosas. A friend of his had built the stone circle a few years before, but now the space looks ancient and sacred. I envied Phil the freedom of mind and heart to move outside under the stars, but at the same time, after that rain-soaked hike, I was so happy to be warm under the covers of his little bed, sleeping next to the animal warmth of my wife. Yes, yes, we were home atop Phil’s Mountain, his casita a little boat tethered to its lookout tower and bobbing in the waves of the cosmos.

July 2018, Saturday the 14th.

I slept well, even with Lee and me doing our little domestic dance, one climbing over the other, to pee in the bucket, the other sleepyhead moving up against the wall. I should have gone outside to look at the stars, but not that night. My job was to sleep and pee when that time came. Waking in the early morning, it took me a bit to remember where I was. The bed was different, the morning light was different, the air we breathed was different. Clean. Pure. Early I heard the cluster of hummingbirds outside the window sucking up the sugar water.

Oh, yeah, oh yeah!

Before Lee got up and Phil fiddling with the daily habits of life in the kitchen, the rain climbing up the mountains from the south, I went wandering in the wet meadow to pee. I also carried along a pillow, I found a good rock, just the right height,  and I sat meditation for 20 minutes. Perfect. High country meditation is easy. You just sit there. Actually, it’s a lot like lowland meditation. You just sit there. It’s different but really is the same. Sitting there. I did hear the hermit thrush, a timid bird, Phil tells me. This summer he saw one for the first time, all these 16 years walking around and listening to the song.

Yes, the little guy loves to talk, explaining the secrets of the universe, especially in the morning, when that new guy, the old white man, is listening!

That was my daydream. I went back and found Phil starting the coffee and making pancakes. Oh my gosh, pancakes with butter, maple syrup and wild raspberries!  He had picked them yesterday, “down by the spring,” he said, when he was waiting for us to get our asses up the mountain.

Lee was up too.
Her first job
was to empty the piss bucket. 


Saturday was  an old-school Sabbath kind of day. A day of rest. An off and on drizzly day, splotches blue sky every once in a while, a little bit of wind. Great conversation. Lee was still asleep, so Phil and I read poems to each other. I read a poem from Africa, a little librito I had packed up the mountain. Then Phil read me a Wendell Berry poem. I cannot remember the poem’s title now. A wonderful poem about the terrible consequences of so-called civilization encroaching on places like the very  place we were sitting that very minute, 10020 feet above it the. Thanks to Phil, Wendell Berry shadowed us the whole day, his poems, his ideas, his beliefs in the old ways.


Turns out that Phil had been thinking a lot about Wendell Berry of late. The Paris Review had tentatively asked Phil to interview Berry, travel over there to Lane’s Landing in Henry County Kentucky and sit at the kitchen table to talk to the old man. Phil, being Phil, had become a scholar on the man . He’s read a great many of Berry’s books. His very frugally selected bookshelf (remember, he has to pack each book up the mountain) is heavily populated with Wendell Berry. If you don’t know Wendell Berry’s work, then you should. He’s an incredible poet, essayist, novelist and farmer. In today’s reactionary terminology, he might be called a Luddite and a backwards old coot. Good for him. He’s a practicing, anti-institutional Christian, and all his work flowers from a deep spiritual understanding that we are here to care for the earth in all its wildness and beauty. This is how he worships. I can dig it. And honor it.



In the bottom of my backpack, I packed several ounces of my friend Robert Washington’s ashes in a Ziploc bag. Bob died April 10, 2016, in El Paso although he’d lived most of his adult life in San Antonio. He said he wanted to come home to El Paso to die. That’s why he was there, and because was a good friend of Lee and me, I had become an off and on helper and caretaker. He had adopted Lee and me a long time before because we traveled for many years to San Antonio years ago to exhibit at the Inter-American Book Festival. On a number of occasions we had stayed at his magical house full of Mexican and folk artifacts, plants and wondrous stories. Turkeys, feral cats, opossums  and raccoons wandered around outside in an enchanted and very small wilderness. In his later years he had becoming a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, traveled to Thailand to meet the Dalai Lama and, indeed, took his vows, wearing his mustard-colored robes and strings of beads (malas) hanging from his neck and wrists when he went out into the world. He had become huge, weighing well over 300lbs, and so his ashes were plentiful and way too much for the urn that he chose for the purpose. That urn now sits off to the side of the altar at the Both Sides No Sides Zen Center, a place Bob felt a fondness for.  But there were ashes to spare, even though I gave them out freely to friends who asked. Bob, I knew, would be honored to have his ashes scattered high in the Gila Wilderness on Phil’s Mountain.

I announced my purpose as we finished our delicious pancakes and wild raspberries. Phil was glad. He said he knew the perfect place. After he finished cleaning up the dishes, we followed him through the wet morning grasses to the southeast, not even a hundred yards from the cabin. There atop the mountain is a hueco, a depression in the stone and earth that gathers water after a rain. Sometimes, if there’s a big rain for a good period of time, the hueco becomes a small shallow pond and little frogs burst into the world. The rain Lee and I had walked through was not enough to fill the hueco, but it was enough to leave a small basin in the center of the hueco, maybe two feet wide and a foot or so deep. The water was cool and clear, truly mountain water. This is where, Phil said, where he scattered ashes of his friend John. A fellow lookout way across to the other side of the Gila Wilderness, John had been like a brother, even father, to Phil all these years. One day, before the 2013 Silver Fire, John and his old horse tumbled off the mountain to their death. Nobody knows how it happened. Maybe the horse had a heart attack. Who knows? Phil tells this story in A Song for the River. All he wanted me to know was that this place was a holy spot to him, and he was honoring our friend and his friend John by leading us here to scatter Bob’s ashes.

I took out a small handful of the white-grey ashes, full of tiny bone shards, and dropped them into the clear cold water. As the ashes sank to the bottom, I stirred the water with my hand and it became milky, dissolving once again into the earth. I had meant to bring several prayers to read, but I had forgotten them in the hubbub of leaving. I mumbled a few words to myself in almost silence as the ashes dissolved. The three of us all were confused by what to say or not to say. Each of has our own understanding of death and the ritual of death, so each of us said something quietly, hesitantly. That was okay. It didn’t change the moment, the ashes clouding the water. Here’s Bob’s evening prayer from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I’m sure modified for his own voice:
I pray to you from the bottom of my heart
Please regard me with compassion from afar
In this life and the next life, as well as in the intermediate state
I make you my haven of hope
Just now while I am alive in the human realm
Is an opportune moment to grant your blessing.
Bob practiced old school Tibetan Buddhism, all the bells and whistles, the long chanting, and he enjoyed contemplating rebirth. Not me. That has always seemed sort of silly. Like Gotama said, if you haven’t done it, don’t talk about it. But these were not my ashes, not my bones. So I happily, I type and repeat his death prayer. Don’t know to what or to whom he was praying. I should have asked him while he was alive, but I’m down with Walt Whitman, thinking it muddies the water of compassion and friendship to argue about God or spiritual practice. But since I was the last guy standing in our friendship, at the memorial gathering for my friend, I read his prayer and followed it with one given to me by a Zen buddy:

Because of the ceaseless action of cause and effect,
reality appears in all its many forms.
To know this fully liberates all who suffer.
All beings appear just as we do from the one,
and pass away as we all do,
After a few flickering moments or years of life
Back to our original unborn nature.
Truly our lives are waves
on the vast ocean of true nature
Which is not born and does not pass away.

It was still chilly, a little bit of drizzle, so Lee went back to the casita to read and nap. A 10,000 foot mountaintop is a perfect recipe for napping. Phil was still on the clock, so he had chores to do. I went off with the rest of Bob’s ashes. I thought I would scattered them from the watch tower, but half way up, I pinched some from the bag and let them go. There’s was no wind, so they fell straight to the ground, some of the bone shards bouncing off the steel girders. I could hear Bob saying, “Well, this is no fun,” so I climbed back down and went looking for more appropriate places.

That was not hard. Phil had showed me a spot beneath a tree and up against some rocks where over the years he had placed Anazazi pot shards he collected walking around the mountain. Perfect. I scattered another handful of ashes for los ancianos of the mountaintop. Then I walked down the trail and found bunches of low lying flowers, yellows and pinks, the latter like Indian Paintbrush. Bob loved flowers, so the remaining ashes and bone shards went among the wild flowers, little mountain flowers enjoying a drizzly day at 10,000 above the seas girdling the ancient crust of the earth. I kept mumbling prayers to myself and talking to Bob. It was a fun journey. I went back to the casita and took a nap.

That was the kind of day it was. I was at peace. Not much to write about. Just wandering around on the top of the mountain. Drinking coffee at the table. Talking with Lee and Phil. Poems and ideas. Wendell Berry. Gary Snyder. Memories of growing up. Fathers. Mothers. Brothers. Sisters. The lives and deaths of Phil’s friend John and the remarkable young woman Ella Jazz who died tragically. The mountains and the fires in the mountains. All the ghosts that follow each of us around in memories. Splotches of sunlight. Drizzle coming and going. Damp rocky earth. Grasses. A halo of pine trees surrounding us. Ponderosas. White pine. Black rock with splotches of lichen.



“Look here,” Phil said on one of our little walk-abouts. Under a rock he pulled a ornamental but weathered tin box.  Inside was a Ziploc bag and inside the bag was a very short note. A woman’s writing announcing the ceremony of a man and a woman, a couple, who had brought the ashes of their dog Pooh to the top of this mountain. This was one of their favorite hikes—a woman, a man and their dog. Nothing else in the note. Just the tin box, the Ziploc bag and the note hidden very privately under a rock.  The hiding place was at the foot of an outcropping of black stone, bench-like, a wonderful place to sit, looking out to the west over the Gila Wilderness with all its complexity of mountains, creeks and the Gila River which drained it all. They must have scattered the ashes in the wind, then talked about their dog, held hands, maybe said a prayer. Maybe 10 years later Phil sat on that same bench of black stone and reached down and found this remarkable artifact. Now he showed it to Lee and me. We placed it carefully back into its mountain cache.

Good people, good dog, good mountain.

Wilderness mountains secrete all sorts of human memories. Yes, yes, we should not try to fix wilderness, but to listen to it. Deeply.



For entertainment, of course, there was always the hummingbirds. Phil had two fat hummingbird feeders hanging off the beam on the back porch. It was crowded with broadtails all day long. One feeder had 10 perches, and the hummingbirds would swoop in, taking their turn, sometimes taking every perch. Ten little birds feeding at the sugar water. Like a nursery rhyme. A brief moment of silence, then they would scatter, sometimes one by one, sometimes in a great humming cloud. It was wonderful, hypnotic entertainment. The broadtails must be the summer population, so they were not bothered as yet by the small but mean-ass rufous hummers who come scaring the bigger birds off their feed. Phil said he’d seen other varieties, some pretty rare, but we were satisfied with the pedestrian broadtails which we have on our front porch, although certainly not in such numbers. Refilling the feeders was a daily task, like washing the dishes.

Two weeks ago, he said, he’d packed 25lbs of sugar up the mountain. Surely, a labor of hummingbird love. Today would be the last day of sugar water. It had been a wet summer, wetter than most, and no fires to speak of in the Gila. Yes, fires were raging in northern New Mexico and northern California, yes, but Phil’s mountain was in little or no danger.  The Forest Service would soon give Phil his summer’s notice. Maybe two weeks, maybe more. They would ask him to walk and survey the mountain trails, a job Phil loved dearly, backpacking  from one site to the next. Around 4pm that afternoon, he filled the feeders one last time. A recipe of 6 parts water, 1 part sugar, a weak concoction for these fat little guys. But oh well, they didn’t seem to mind. They didn’t know that the next day would not bring more sugar water.

Really, there’s not much else to write. We sat in a meadow and looked at rocks. We wandered some, but not too far. The huge sky kept changing, clouds coming and disappearing, splotches of blue and sunlight. Lee and I were happy just being there, being bone tired and happy. Oh, yeah, we watched the hummingbirds. That was our excitement. Mountains are made for haiku, not long journal pieces like this. Not to worry. I didn’t want to forget this one journey in my 76th year.

That night Phil made meat balls and spaghetti. I had packed an orange up for a special treat—Phil concocted a special drink with orange and bourbon. We made jokes and laughed. That night, when we were going to bed, Lee said had been worried. With the continual uncertainty of rain, it’s constant drizzling, we would only have conversation to spread our time across the day. She worried it might be boring for Phil and for us. But not so. Conversation came and went, like the clouds and the sun, the rain and the blue sky. And that night I discovered a great secret. I didn’t need to sit on the bucket to pee. I just picked it up. I giggled as I climbed back into bed, crawling over Lee. It would be her turn next, but, ha, she’d have to squat.



The next morning was going-down-the-mountain day. I woke up as the sunlight began filtering over the Sangre de Cristos, way across the wide Rio Grande Valley. Way over there too are the Sacramentos. A huge magnificent vista. Again, splotched with clouds. A few hummingbirds came looking for sugar water but there was none to be had. They were not happy nor sad. It was just the way it was. Or like the kids say, “It is what it is.” But I was sad without the buzz of hummingbirds flitting around the feeders. Still, the coming silence of the hummingbirds made the day more special, a little ritual of going away, a necessary dance.

Phil made us oatmeal and we continued our human chattering. Saying goodbyes. Abrazos. And we packed up and left, taking a few more photos, remembering the skies, remembering the casita. Down we went, step by step, breath by breath, an animal rhythm to be sure, in our own heads and hearts, but together in the big world—Big Mind, as Suzuki says. We stopped here and there for a water break, talking a little big, chewing over our visit, like cows with their cud, such a pleasure. But over us we could see the dark clouds coming again. Been there, done that, and of course we didn’t want to do that again. We pushed ahead, and lucky us, as soon as we got to the car, the rains and thunder came tumbling down, reminding us again that we are human beings on a mountainside swirling around on the planet earth.

Editor and Author, A Song for the River
"It's like magic," Shadow said,
"a path into the Nowhere."
"No better place to be," Wednesday said.
[Note 2]

We arrived at our car just as the clouds opened up with a huge downpour. Perfect, we thought, giggling at our good luck. We stuffed our gear into the car and Lee scrambled inside, while I like a fool stood in the rain and quickly read all the historic markers the Forest Service had erected. The feds had re-written to give a Native American perspective. Folks had been hammering on doors to make that happen, and there it was. That made me happy. Then we were weaving our way through the mountains again. Being creatures of habit, we headed east the way we came. It’s a longer drive, but we’re not in the mountains every  day. Besides, we had our hearts and bellies set on the comfort food served at the Hillsboro Café. Yes, yes, we stuffed ourselves with hamburgers and fries and the white noise of meaningless restaurant conversations. Then we took the quiet drive home on the old #27 road from Hillsboro to Hatch curling around Gila Mountains foothills and crossing just-now flooded low-water fords scrabbled with rock. The landscape is a very unpopulated ranching topography, such a pleasure to be in its quietness after our mountain journey. And then, still 30 miles north of Hatch, is the ghost town of Lake View, it’s abandoned but refurbished school house perched atop a barren hilltop. Somehow that solitary building with all its lost memories and human histories marked the end of our little journey into the thunder of so much silence.

And the end of this journal entry.



[Note One] Last year, with little or no preparation plus much foolhardy gusto, my son-in-law Ed Holland and I made the same journey. Well, I was the foolhardy one. Ed was kind enough to join the old man up the trail. Our plan was to go up and visit Phil and to return home the same day. It didn’t work out that way. We got off to a very late post-noon start and got hammered by a hard rain (“a soaker” Phil said, at just under 1-inch in less than an hour). Soaking wet and shivering from the cold, we arrived at the top sometime close to 5pm. Phil and his wonderful wife Monica Uribe invited us to spend the night. It didn’t take much convincing. It was a magical evening atop the mountain, especially perched in the fire tower, watching the evening come upon us, our mountain with open skies but with a halo of thunderstorms wrapping all around us. We walked back down the next morning with great tales to tell, especially about Phil’s and Monica’s wonderful generosity. I think Lee heard those tales and chewed on them all year. She didn’t want to miss out on the journey. That’s the kind of woman she’s always been.
[Note 2] Forgive me. I've been listening to Neil Gaimon's fantasy American Gods. This is NOT a quote from the novel, but it should be. Besides, it fit, what with Lee and Phil standing next to a sign that says nothing. 

—Bobby Byrd,
Begun 16 July 2016
and finished 12 November 2018


 





1.15.2018

Chestnuts from Germany



Good Morning, Germany
―For Stefan and Mimi

On our walk along the Rhein that first day
Before Lee and I left for Frankfort,
I picked up three chestnuts.
Remember?
The chestnuts lit up good memories
For Lee and her New Jersey growing up.
Anyway, I smuggled the chestnuts home
From Germany inside my pants pocket,
Walked right through the sensors
And past all the men and women with guns.
I didn’t know what I was going to do with them.
Couldn’t throw them away. 
Anyway, I put them at the feet of Hotei,
That Happy Chinaman who sits with
Great joy in my bathroom window.
Why I did it, I don’t know.
Except Hotei is a wise saint,
The patron of children and the feeble,
Who doesn’t need words to speak.

1.04.2018

Taking a bath with Mr. Rumi

Self Portrait in the NYC bathtub of my good friends,
Sylvia and John Gardner (May 2010)

My good friends Doshin Diana Johnson and Keisei Amelia Furrow reminded me recently of this wonderful poem by the great Sufi poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, aka جلال‌الدین محمد رومی. The poem reminds me of this photograph, a self-portrait, that I took way back in 2010 in the tiny and wonderfully intimate bathroom belonging to our good friends Sylvia and John Gardner. The "Story Water" poem and the photograph seem like the perfect way to say Happy New Year, vowing to practice peace in the days ahead. Mr. Rumi would have it no other way. 


STORY WATER

A story is like water 
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire 
and your skin. It lets them meet, 
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down 
in the middle of the fire itself 
like a salamander or Abraham. 
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes, 
but usually it takes some bread 
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us, 
but usually we need to be walking 
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen 
to shield and partially reveal 
to light that's blazing 
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body, 
all the things we do, are mediums 
that hide and show what's hidden.

Study them, 
and enjoy this being washed 
with a secret we sometimes know, 
and then not.

Translation from Barks, Coleman.The Essential Rumi. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994.

12.30.2015

My Reading at the Dia: Chelsea, NYC, September 15th 2015


Hello,

The Dia: Chelsea posted the audio of my reading from September 15, 2015, along with Todd Colby's, and I wanted an accessible place to link to it other than Facebook or Dia. Hence, this blog entry. The reading is 25 minutes long, and it was preceded by a delightful introduction by Vincent Katz which I am pasting below. I hope you enjoy the reading. Doing this reminds me that I do enjoy posting blogs and hope to get to more of it in the New Year.

And here's Vincent Katz' Introduction. Vincent does thoughtful, fun introductions, after reading as much of the poet as possible. Speaks well of him, huh? He is the Curator of the Chelsea Reading Series. He's a good poet and a good guy, one of those poets who do a lot for the poetry scene, collaborating with poets and artists, putting together readings, cobbling together a living.


6.18.2014

THE MOCKINGBIRD, THE CATS & THE AGAVE




On June 1, I came back to El Paso after three weeks in New York City. Driving up to the house, I saw that the agave plant by the front steps had sprouted, its woody stalk reaching up 20 feet into the blue sky. My gosh, how miraculous, I thought. When I left, there was no stalk at all, and now this enormous growth sprung up from the heart of the plant! Fifteen years ago at least I planted that agave. It’s one of my favorite plants. And, yes, I understand it will die. Agave plants die after they have bloomed. Still, I enjoy that luxurious and unexpected sprouting of the desert. So do the bees. They cluster around the little flowers that the stalk carries toward the blue sky. Truly, living in the desert, we get to enjoy such miracles.

But mockingbirds don’t believe in miracles. They do enjoy sitting atop the stalk high above the yard and screaming at the cats. Cats don’t believe in miracles either. Black cat Ernie and Clovis, the younger grey tabby cat, are asleep, one on the lawn, the other on a shady cool place on the sidewalk. Like they’re not paying any attention. It’s just pretense. They are hunting mockingbirds. Specifically, they are hunting the bird atop the agave stalk. Just waiting for the dive-bombing to begin. Sooner or later, the mockingbird will dart down from the top of the stalk and swoop over one or the other, squawking the whole time. The cat will wave its tail like he’s bored with the bird. That pisses the mockingbird off. She comes screaming down on another run. The cat wags his tail again and raises his head slightly. He yawns.

Every summer the same thing, the parable of the mockingbird and the cat. It’s their game. Sure, maybe the mockingbird is worried about its nest, but I don’t think so. It’s June, all the eggs have hatched, and the little mockingbirds are going about their lives as adolescents. No, I think it’s simply what mockingbirds and cats do. It’s wired into the genetics of who they are. Usually during the summer, one or two mockingbirds will lose the game.

Like this morning, I had to scoop up a dead mockingbird in a plastic bag and tossed it in the garbage. Ernie or Clovis—I don’t know which—had been successful in his hunt. He had killed the bird and eaten off its head, scooped out some organs from the belly, but left the rest of the body alone. It made me sad. I said a little prayer for the mockingbird and for the cats. Everything, Pat Enkyo O’Hara says, must be included in what we see and understand. Nothing must be left out. Not the mockingbirds, not the cats, not the bees, not the agave, not ourselves. When I drove off to work, another mockingbird was sitting atop the agave stalk squawking at the cats. Ernie was lying in the grass, and Clovis was stretched out on the sidewalk in the shade of the desert willow.

10.11.2013

The Sickness Suite, a little big book of poems by Tim Staley



I’m a sucker for handmade poetry books and magazines. Cheap little things with words on them. Gimme books. Libritos made with a special kind of love. It’s an addiction from growing up into the poetry world in the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-60s Paul Malanga and I made six issues of a little magazine, FROM A WINDOW using mimeographed pages, whitener, manual typewriters. The results were always miraculous. So I get juiced when something like poet Tim Staley’s The Sickness Suite shows up in the mailbox. It’s 3-3/8ths by 5”. Goofy drawings on the cover and inside. The publisher is Grandma Moses Press. I’d never heard of them. Goes with being an old man. So I googled them. Happily, Grandma Moses Press is googlable. They specialize in little books like Tim’s which are guaranteed not to make money. Hot damn!

But Tim’s little book is not a breezy little book written to make us happy. It’s wonderfully crafted poetry—in a haphazard way—that documents chronologically when Sylvia, the Staley baby, got terribly sick. Her liver was shutting down. Suzanne and Tim were terrified. Their baby little girl would die if she did not get a liver transplant. Period.  

Here’s a little poem from the book (most are longer). The setting is El Paso (eventually, they went to Houston). Tim had chased the ambulance down from Las Cruces where they live. Suzanne must have been in the ambulance. The time of this poem is when the waiting begins and the questions start spinning in the brain. All sorts of questions about life and death, morality, yes and no, sorrow, modern life and medicine, the gut questions of parenthood—



A JAUNDICED VIEW

At Kinley’s House Coffee & Tea,
a girl in flirty flats slides in next to me,
her liver functioning perfectly, her blood
clotting like batter in a waffle iron. A family
strolls in, mom and three kids, their
gallbladders all draining, filling and tipping
bile as they should except dad forgot his
wallet. Has to walk all the way back to the
Hummer, the capillaries in his liver robust,
nothing like my daughter’s liver, a jellyfish
skewered on a cactus spine. She’s with my
wife nearby wrestling infection in the
nosocomial claw of the hospital, where my
baby’s veins are gateways to super germs
who’ve united, who’ve built up resistance
to antibacterial disinfectants and I wish
I had that gall, that crass resilience.
 

Suzanne, Sylvia & Tim
What, 2 years later?

7.21.2013

Unpaid Advertisement for Cactus Mary's Hand-Crafted Soaps




Don’t float. When I was a kid the white
Rectangular bar of Ivory soap floated. 
It didn’t slither down reptilian between 

My legs where I needed to go scavenging 
For the soap in the dirty water among 
The filthy (some would say “unholy”)

Body parts. Soap that floated was surely 
A white middle-class conspiracy 
Designed to hide the sacred mysteries of life, 

Taught to me at last by the good Reverend, 
Little Richard and others of his denomination.
How good kids have it in the 21st Century, 

Diving into the Tao of all there is, learning 
About himself or herself simply because 
A bar of Cactus Mary’s Hand-Crafted Soap

Doesn’t float.  



3.17.2013

Good Friends




GOOD FRIENDS 

They like two-ply. 
We like one-ply.






So, I need to get more into my blogging again. I get distracted. Business. Family. The Zen practice group (Both Sides / No Sides Zen Community) that sits zazen in the little office in the back of our house. All good and necessary stuff, but I miss my writing and my poetry. Not to say that I'm not writing. I do my journal, I fiddle with new stuff (I can get lost for hours), but nothing ever comes out that goes public. It's Spring again, and I need to change that.

Right now I'm putting together my new poetry manuscript--Talking to My Wife While She's Away at Church. (That's a tentative title. Another possibility is The Roshi Makes Shitty Coffee.) Lucky me: friend and poet Connie Voisine was kind enough to read the whole manuscript and make suggestions and give new ideas. She's a great poetry editor, and she knows my work well. These are poems written over the last several years, and I've chosen them because, in one way or another, they pull together all the diverse facets of my life that do all the distracting mentioned above (except business--I don't write business poems). And they are written through the lens of my Zen practice. Or, what I'd rather call, like Stephen Batchelor, my dharma practice. "Zen" is becoming such a useless word. Ice cream is zen, restaurants are zen, back scratchers are zen. Etcetera. Anyway, I thought I'd use some of the poems in the book as a way to play with poetry and some of my ideas. I'll start slowly. Like this little poem about toilet paper which I love so much.

The book, by the way, won't be published until March of next year. Cinco Puntos is publishing it. Yippee! It's a great Indie press. I know Lee the president intimately. In the meantime we'll be fiddling with a book cover. Johnny Byrd (the CPP CFO and PR wonk, also a wonderfully close good friend) says that needs to be done in the next several months. Our friend J.B. Bryan of La Alameda Press in Albuquerque will be the designer. J.B. did that incredible design for Beauty is a Verb, the New Poetry of Disability which got so much great attention and is still selling. Besides, like me, he's a poet, a book publisher (semi-retired), he sits zazen everyday and he's one of the principle organizers of the Three Stones Zen Group. We have plenty to talk about. Here's a self-portrait I did of J.B. and me. He had just finished building his adobe tea house in Placitas where his studio is. He invited me for his rendition of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. It was fun.

Being a poet is fun. Being a publisher is fun.


12.27.2012

How to Say Hello & How to Say Goodbye




Self-Portrait ,July 2012

I always have envied black men saying hello to each other. Complete strangers. They nod their heads, Hey brother. Walking down the street, in a public place, on a bus, even driving down the street. It didn't matter. Their saludos to each other became more pronounced when they're in a white place--white men, white women, the Man in charge. A nod and a hello. It was an honorable response to life. An honorable response to that ancient history that stretched back through bigotry and slavery all the way to Africa. Mother Africa. I wanted to understand but I always knew that I could not. I could only be a witness to that unspoken bond.

As a young man I wished for that between me and others.

Now I’m 70 and in the last few years I've discovered that old men do the same thing. Ethnicity and race doesn’t seem to matter. White. Black. Chicano. Whatever. Especially in gyms or in places over-populated by middle-aged and young people. A nod and a hello. The guy might be a Republican, a homeless guy, a Christian, a fool; me a democrat, a Buddhist, that idiot with the goofy hat, it doesn't matter. How ya doing? Have a good day. And this morning I realized this bond between old men is about vulnerability. Bodies knowing each other’s secret. I am him, and he is me. Knowing each other's history. Knowing what is our shared future—the universe opens up and I am no longer here. What is this? What is this thing I call “me?” That is our question. Man to man. An osmosis. A biologic memory and transference. A sense of compassion for one another.

I'm so delighted that this happens.

And I remembered, as I wrote this, my mother at the hospital, a few days before she died. I had lifted her into a wheelchair and pushed her outside into a little garden. We both knew she didn't have long to live. Her heart was leaking blood. Congenital heart disease. We passed another woman--equally old, equally feeble. My mother raised her frail hand and waved to the other woman, her boney fingers riffing a quiet tune like a piano player.

A final blessing, a final celebration.

Hello. Goodbye. Goodbye.




7.19.2012

Book Review of the Collected Writings of Joe Brainard




Book Review of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard

Joe Brainard was our Rimbaud.
Except he did it differently.
Much.
He was a painter too.
That’s what he said he was.
A painter.
He didn’t say he was a writer.
But he wrote a lot.
And I love what he wrote.
I take my poetry too seriously.
Shit like that.
That why I’m writing this.
Joe was a nice guy, it seems like.
And he was from Tulsa.

Coda

Too bad Verlaine and all those other dudes
Didn’t know that Rimbaud was their Joe Brainard.
It would have lightened things up for them.
Like it lightened things up for me.
But what is “it”?
Like Rimbaud wouldn’t have gone to Africa.
He could have stayed home.
He could have taken up painting.
But that’s how history is.
It never tells the whole truth. 



7.03.2012

New York City, #7: In Memory of Anthony Horton

[Note: I've been back from NYC for more than a month now, but I want to finish putting up my bits and pieces of writing that I was working on while I was there. bb]

Photo of Anthony © Nura Qureshi

New York City is people. A cornucopia of people. Body types. Flesh color. Voices and accents. Languages. The streets and the buildings are full of these people. But it’s in the subways and busses that we get to know each other. We silently negotiate for seats. The give and the take. The rules of the game. Even the young tough men and women, they have their rules. Old people. Young people. Kids. The in-betweeners.  Everybody looks, even if we don’t look. We listen closely. We jostle. We touch.

And the imagination begins to open up.



From PITCH BLACK

There, in the darkness of a tunnel, is the ghost of AnthonyHorton. Since his death in March he’s been waiting for me to come back down into the subways. I knew Tony because of Youme Landowne. She collaborated with him to do the wonderful graphic novel, PitchBlack, Don’t Be Skerd. It’s the story of a black homeless man (an artist, a writer) who meets the Youme Landowne (children’s book writer and illustrator), a very white woman, in the subways one day. It’s a story about suffering, a story about compassion and understanding as two-way streets. Anthony and Youme journeyed on the subway together, and when I’m riding the subway, especially when I see a black homeless man, I cannot help but think of Anthony. I wrote this little riff to honor his memory.


I’m in the tunnels going downtown on the #1 train between 103rd and 96th. I hear something. A grumbling. I look out the window. Rising up out of the earth is another train. A ghost snake burrowing up from a deeper tunnel. The windows lit up. Men and women gathered together in a box of light. The #2 Express. It could be us. But it’s them. What’s the difference? Tony Horton would tell you the difference. Except he would tell you there is no difference. Us and them. Them and us. Tony could tell you because he was an artist and a poet. And he used to live down in these tunnels. The tunnels were his home. His city. He pledged his allegiance to the darkness. And to the country for which it stands in darkness. Tony was a citizen of this darkness. He could feel himself in the walls. This is where his friends lived. People like him. Men and women. Neighbors. He had the dark maps in his head. He knew where his people lived, he knew the secrets of the tunnels. This is where he found his strength and his wisdom. The palm of his hand. That’s why he felt safer down here. He hated the city streets. The people up there didn’t understand. They lived in the daylight. How could they understand? Sunlight does not translate into earth-dark. It’s a different language altogether. Tony was our pioneer into the world that will come. That’s what he said. These tunnels. Down here he was meant to find himself. Here in the dark he battled against his drinking. Here in the dark he battled against his gods. Here he battled against his memories. No mother to find. No father to find. He looked around and could not find himself. Maybe he himself was not there. Maybe we aren’t here. Maybe that is the secret. He refused to live inside the light. He said everything he needed he could find in the garbage that he dragged into the darkness.

From PITCH BLACK
Tony found an empty room in the tunnels. The room would become his home. But first he needed to camp out in that room. The room was black. Don’t be skerd, he said. Don’t be skerd. The room is warm. Tony waited for the rain. And soon it rained in the world up above. Tony’s room didn’t fill up with rain water. It didn’t even leak. He felt like he was home. He found an old mattress and a hotplate and a lamp. He brought cardboard for the floor, he found an old blanket. He moved in. He stole electricity from the subway wiring. He had made himself a home. He had found his own kind of light. Stolen light. Borrowed light. Light to live by in the earth dark. He had a place to sleep. It was all free. He wondered what the word “free” meant. He went up into the streets and into that other light to beg for money and to beg for food. To see a few friends. But he always came back to his home. He was safe down there. And warm.

And one night a spark from the hot plate set his world afire. Tony died down in these tunnels. A terrible screaming death. You can read about it in the New York Times.

─in Memory of Anthony Horton                   
With blessings to Youme Landowne and her family

5.29.2012

New York City, #6

Poet Eileen Myles amid the cat food on 9th Street, NYC

Last Saturday: Great dinner with poet and novelist Eileen Myles, Ernie the Cat’s mother (see below), at the Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place off 2nd Ave. Many great topics of conversation, but also she retold me the story of Ernie the Black Cat, how he came straggling up to her place in San Diego, black baby cat, big globs of gunk dripping from his eyes. Eileen babied little Ernie, gave him a name when the vet wouldn’t treat him without a name. So Ernie was named and familied and mothered up. Rosie, Eileen’s (friend, partner in the old sense, travel companion, also pet) pit bull was still alive, so Ernie lived in the garage, made friends with the family and became an indoor/outdoor cat. But on his own terms. Ernie always insists on his own terms. Even Rosie liked him. Then Rosie died. Poor Rosie. Poor Eileen. Ernie took over some of Eileen’s heart. She has a big heart. Lots of space to move around in. But they moved to New York and Ernie hated being an indoor city cat. Also he didn’t get along with Eileen’s new partner. Probably a little jealous, knowing Ernie. So Ernie got to come live the Byrds on Louisville in El Paso. It was okay with Ernie. He had stopped by to visit once and spent the night. Eileen and her partner now happily have two dogs and two cats. And Ernie and the Byrds are happy with each other. Life is good.

So Eileen gives me her new book, which is really two books, one book Snow Flake: New Poems, and turn it over and, lo, it’s a second book Different Streets: Newer Poems (Wave Books). Here’s a poem from Snow Flake where Ernie gets to talk—





Eileen

yes, Ernie
why can you
have junk
food & I
cannot. Why can
you have a
giant plate
and I can
no longer have
my crunchy
treats. Why
am I served up
a cold fish
plate,
you’re not
so thin
Eileen
I know.  



Ernie the Cat at Home in El Paso: Yes, sure, he misses Eileen.

5.28.2012

New York City #5

The Tub in John & Sylvia Downstairs Bathroom: Puro New York City

Sitting on the pot this morning 
And reading dead Joe Brainard poems
(I miss Joe Brainard and didn’t even know him)
I overcooked the steel-cut oatmeal.
It still tasted delicious.
Spring strawberries.
Dried and sweetened cranberries.
Walnuts.
Maple syrup.
Milk.
Oatmeal is full of forgiveness.