Rules of the Road

Think from the heart of the matter.
Gaze in the rear-view mirror.
As the past recedes—
the road endures.

No beginning and no end.
Follow it.
Let go. Hang on.

Where there is safety
there is silence.

Slow down.
Travel without moving—
say nothing
about what you hear.

Yesterday has already joined
the geography of our passages. 
The past is present—
embrace it. 

Shadow Sutra

I talk about the Buddha with my shadow
(a shadow is not a shadow
that is why it is a shadow).
We agree on many things
and disagree about others
that don’t matter much
and we are amused by the fact
that we cannot see each other’s face.

He is a smart fellow, my shadow.
He understands the mockingbird.
He doesn’t mind inclement weather.
When the sun is hidden by clouds
he just evaporates.
The antics of would-be kings amuse him.
He tells me not to be uneasy
be like him
then not there
always tranquil always humming tunes
that cannot be heard.

Composed in 2006

Round Trip

Eight hundred miles north on Interstate 5
traveling with my daughter.
California parched and brown until Shasta
and the clouds roll through one another
ghosts wrapped within ghosts.

Twenty-one years ago this same road
with my pregnant wife.
Last vacation for the two of us
before the kids arrived.

Today Portland is clear and the sun
slices the edges of the downtown skyline.
The bridges spanning the river
seem delicate as if they are supported by air
rather than bedrock.
The radio plays great hits of the seventies
sweet dreams are made of this
who am I to disagree?

Washington and green conifers
free coffee and wireless Internet
at the rest stop. Suddenly
Seattle appears on the horizon.
Rain clouds off to the west.
Last minute fumbling with the road map
as we find our way to her new home.

Back on the plane alone.
The sun sets during the whole flight
the evening star pinned against the sky
lights of towns scattered in the gentle darkness
San Francisco luminous as we land.
Two hours home takes the same time
as twenty-one years.

Note on the text:

Composed in September 2006

Godzilla vs. Reptilicus

Now Godzilla he’s the friend of children.
Didn’t start out that way at first
he was a walking rage of nuclear fire
and goggle eyed rubber anger
eating trains and nail factories
and flossing his teeth with high tension
electric wires until a celibate scientist
dissolved him with an oxygen gadget.

Later that all changed for some reason.
Not only did he come back from the dead
an easy feat for a radioactive lizard
but he found some friends who were fairies
that lived in a little kabuki box
and a few little fat kids who cheered him on
as if he was an extra-large outfielder
for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

Reptilicus is another matter not very
sophisticated that one though
he made his bones in Denmark
gobbling up sheep farmers and brewers
and throwing up nasty green acid
on the NATO tanks and artillery
while the generals scowled and kept shooting
because that’s all they knew how to do.

No, Godzilla would make mincemeat
of that European pretender to the throne
of Most Awesome Kaiju of All Time.
Not only does the big guy
heave atomic fire from his mouth
but Reptilicus is just a hopeless puppet
while inside Godzilla’s pimpled rubber suit
is the hot ass soul of a human being.

Notes on the text:

Myriad Things Awakening

August 12, 2021, late afternoon of a warm day in Oregon. I’m sitting in front of my television watching the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees play nine innings of baseball at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. The sun is setting there—the evening sky opulent. I visited that place nine years ago and sat in the little grandstand with my wife who, true to character, tried to remain unimpressed. My daughter and I walked leisurely around the bases with our arms around each other. As I watch the game unfold those visits seem indistinct—then the present moment merges with beloved past and my memories come into focus.

The vision: baseball at dusk—the light changing subtly, from blue, to violet, to sable, as the field lights cast astigmatic haloes above the grandstand. The wind caresses the emerald cornfields and despite the grating monochromatic voice of Joe Buck clumsily exorcising the enchantment from the scene, I am filled with the inexpressible feeling I always have in my heart at the end of the film Field of Dreams—the camera rising at twilight while Ray plays catch with his father and all the car headlights line up and extend to a forever distant horizon. My heart breaks and heals all over again. Gratitude rises. Grace descends.

The image of that major league game in the cornfields has been in my mind for three days, and it still lingers. Today is cooler in the Pacific Northwest. I can hear the horn of the Amtrak Cascades train as it crosses the intersection of Harmony Road and Railroad Avenue. A tractor orbits the infield in one of the baseball fields here, pulling a sledge and leveling the infield—tufts of dust drift behind it. A dog yaps, far off, barely audible. There are no humans around me except for the pilot of the circulating tractor, its engine whining in a wavering glissando, punctuated by the sputtering exhaust. All these myriad things are appropriate to my introspective mood.

Over the past few years I’ve watched the landscapers lavish attention on these grounds—especially on the ball fields as they are primed for autumn Little League tournaments. Field preparation is as much a part of the ritual of the pastime as the action in the baseball diamond. I always observe closely during the break between innings at a ballpark—the ground crew waltzing concentrically around the infield, dragging rectangular metal rakes behind them, smoothing out the divots and ruts created by the spiked soles of the players’ shoes, wiping away the past to create a clear view of the present.

I reread Shoeless Joe after the White Sox – Yankees game. It’s a beloved book, a classic of magical realism. I read it every few years. The style blurs the edges of reality with a hazy tinge of fantasy. The writing is a bit over the top. Yet the story is spellbinding, and the first-person narrative is impeccable, despite the extravagant prose. The literature of baseball is often full of embellished language—legends are best expressed in hyperbole after all.

Baseball transforms to folklore adroitly. Witness last evening, August 14, in Phoenix, Arizona as a young rookie threw a no-hitter in his first major league start. That hasn’t happened since the year I was born—1953—and has occurred only twice before that.

Tyler Gilbert, pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who recently worked as an electrician in Santa Cruz California, joined Bobo Hollomon (1953), Bumpus Jones (1892), and Theodore Breitenstein (1891) in the record books as an unlikely champion who somehow pulled off a feat that is celebratory and triumphant even though it produced nothing of importance in the daily standings. The D-backs are mired in last place, 38 games back in the National League West, and there were very few folks in the stands at Chase Field. That the result of the game was grander in its consummation than its pragmatic result is of no importance. It adds a gentle tone of irony to the tale.

Tyler’s no-hitter was palpable magical realism in a sorry-sad-sack world. It wasn’t made up by an author and decorated with language. Magic occasionally merges into the common world of reality and reminds us that if we pay close attention to our own day to day story, we’ll discover many mystically credible moments that garnish our lives with spices of surprise and joy, though they are not as public as that no-hitter. All we have to do is be open to seeing them. Then they reveal themselves. 

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryū Suzuki quotes Dōgen Zenji: “Time goes from present to past.” Suzuki Roshi also comments, “This is absurd, but in our practice sometimes it is true. Instead of time progressing from past to present, it goes backwards from present to past.”

Time progresses in both directions. The past and future are with us here—right now. The trick is to calm the mind in order to see the past as the present rides on top of it like a palimpsest. As I watched the game unfold next to the cornfields of Dyersville under the gradually shifting light of a meditative sky, I was in the present, and my heart was in the past—walking the bases with my daughter and watching the enigmatic face of my wife as she sat in the same grandstand that Burt Lancaster, James Earl Jones, Kevin Costner and the rest of the cast of Field of Dreams had graced years before the day she rested there.

If you build it they will come—and we did. Ease his pain—and mine was cleared.

Time moves as we journey within it. Dōgen Zenji also said, “That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.”  Those myriad things are life as it is, the Big Mind that is everything—baseball, twilight, dogs barking, gardeners leveling the infield, train horns calling. It’s all divine, but the holiness is here now, not in some other place that is invisible and unattainable.

These words are not enough to encompass what I’m thinking—now in the present and before in the past, in both directions, when I came forth as a child, a husband, a father, a technical worker, and today, a widower and writer-mystic. When I pay attention, things as they are and Big Mind are God. Occasionally I am wise enough and blessed enough to see them disclosed.

We are all our own legends. In the future we will be in the past. Our times will live in that not-yet-present-future like fables. Casey Stengel said, “You could look it up.” Perhaps in fifty years someone will do so, and these words might then awaken like all the other marvels that continually arise and deliver us from sorrow.

There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.

Celia Laighton Thaxter

Photos by Richard Gylgayton

Notes on the text:

No Earned Runs

Second deck, third row
the view down the right field line
like perspective in a renaissance painting.

During batting practice the sun moves
across the field leisurely
then falls behind us as the blue bay
and the cobalt sky merge
into violet twilight.

Fifth inning. The freighters
floating on the water turn on their lights.
The gentle home crowd murmurs
then shouts as the tenth strikeout is recorded.

Eighth inning. Still a no hitter
the fact has slipped by unnoticed
veiled by the sharp rap of wood
the succession of strikeouts
grounders and long
lazy fly balls.

Pesky slap hitter singles up the middle.
An honest hit.
Pitcher takes a bow at the end of the inning.

Three outs, the home team wins.
The sky has blossomed to darkness
the stretch, the finish
the evening engaged.

On June 19. 2006 San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain threw an almost-no-hitter into the eighth inning at AT&T Park against the Los Angeles Angels. I was there that night. Full story here.

Oracle Park – July 24, 2021 – Photo by Richard Gylgayton

The Last Gasp of Something Grasping

A Winterland Nights Bonus Track

September 16, 2019, 9:21 am—Last Homely House. Monday morning. Much work to do today in the studio. Each morning when I wake up I am astonished by where I am and what I’m doing. Retired—what an inexplicable word.

At this moment I’m sitting in the reading room. I come in here first thing when I awaken and open the curtains that cover the bay window. A cloudy morning. More rain coming. Another front arriving tomorrow. A wind warning up on Accuweather. Possible thunderstorm this afternoon. The weather is always metaphorical as well as physical. I might be able to get out for a walk this morning after I finish my coffee. 

Anyway, yeah, retired. I never expected it and certainly not in the way that it transpired. When I attended the Hot Tuna concert the night before last I looked around, and everyone, and I do mean everyone, was my age, most of them grey-haired. Men with big stomachs, even bigger than mine (gonna do something about that). Wizened ladies dancing and whirling. Tie dyed T-shirts. Good crowd. An exuberant Dionysian mood in Revolution Hall. (Yes, that’s the actual name of the venue.)

I thought about my generation and how we were transformed by psychedelics. We woke up. Some of us anyway. You can read that history now in a book called Acid Dreams—also Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. All that happened long ago, but it lingers. We thought we were going to make vast changes. We did make a few. We ended an unconscionable ultra-violent war in Southeast Asia. We began thinking about the ecosystem. We raised our children to think planetarily. We failed in other ways. The power structure is resilient, and there are always new people willing to hypnotize themselves into having a piece of it. 

What we are going through now is the last gasp of something. Business as usual is not sustainable. Literal religion doesn’t work. We have made a mess of the planet. The hounds of war are still at it, ravaging and tearing the natural equity of the world, migrating it into cash so that affluent folks can have more golden toilets to crap in. I think this is temporary. It’s all unraveling. It can’t last.

I am light years apart from those who love their guns and knives, those who have no doubts about their righteousness whether they are religious or not. That’s a trap—being so into your self-imposed relief from fear and discomfort that you cannot even consider that your solace is a warped fantasy. On occasion I’m as guilty of that as anyone.

But not now I think—not as I sit here listening to Bach’s Art of the Fugue on a Monday morning in the Pacific Northwest, gazing at threatening skies, while commuters rush past my home to their glorious day in the American economy.

What do I believe in? Books. Art. Music. Kindness. Love. The goodness of people despite their confusion over race and religion. I suppose you can believe in love and still carry a gun or a knife, but would you use it? Do you need it?

Music is at our roots, as humans, and as Americans. Examples: The Carter family and Jimmie Rogers. People from uneducated backgrounds who had no money but knew how to sing and play three chords on the guitar, or who could pick on the banjo or saw away at the fiddle. They got connected with recording technology and there it was—The Spirit of the Depths. Popular culture that arose from the bottom up rather than filtering from the top down. Simple and sincere. No music degrees. Only passion and play.

Same thing last Saturday night. Two guys, Jorma and Jack, who have been playing together for more than fifty years. Rock is here to stay. It’s part of that American music—the roots are blue and black with a bit of Europe thrown in as well. 

It was all coopted by white people way back when. I laughed when I once saw a poster for a Carter Family concert that claimed the music was “morally right.” Everyone was concerned about appearances. God was a judge—a sky king. Understandable in those times. But these are new times. I wonder if what we know as popular music now is a desire to hold onto values rather than celebrate with song. Much of what I hear these days is sentimental and sugary. Or devoid of the human touch—wiped away by Autotune.  

If maudlinism is the core of your cosmic foundation then you will be easily fooled and confused. Sentiment is a barrier to clear thought. Life is harsh. No point in trying to alleviate suffering with saccharine. Humans are temporary. Everything is. Even the universe will end—someday. In the short time we have as “spiritual beings having a human experience,” should we be anything but realistic?

I’m at that age where I can look back and see it all. I remember what life was like in Pennsylvania when I was a little kid. We were middle class, but those memories are all fading to grey sixty years later. Maybe that’s just recollection working in a mysterious way. I am as fallible as anyone else. My father and mother moved us to California in 1966. I came of age at a time when that celebratory Spirit Power was the air. We learned that what we considered as normal was anything but—the Establishment was the same horrible power structure that had always existed, fueled by hate, fear, and greed.

In America we were the center of the modern world—at least that was how it was advertised after the maelstrom that we had helped create after World War II. Now we are trying to get that illusion back, and it’s impossible. White people are vainly grasping at their privilege at all costs in a culture that has become so lightweight, shallow, and ingenuous that there seems no way out. Except to let it all collapse and build from what we have learned in the last fifty years.

That’s why I write as the world unravels. Not only is it a way to “getting the world right” (Wallace Stevens) but it’s a way to leave something behind me. There are far too many people on the planet. I’m one more slob trying to stay healthy and happy. There’s not a day that goes by when my monkey mind wakes up expecting some kind of ghastly news to arrive in my life. I imagine all sorts of personal horror. There is no point to that sort of thinking. I dismiss it and do the best I can.

Time for a walk before it rains. Then back to the studio. Words. That’s all I’ve got. Bach just ran out. Literally. Art of the Fugue, as I recall, was what he was composing when he died.

Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.

Wallace Stevens

Notes on the text:

  • Hot Tuna History
  • Acid Dreams, Martin A. Lee, Bruce Shlain, Grove Press, ISBN 9780802130624
  • How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, And Transcendence, Michael Pollan, Penguin Press, ISBN 9781594204227
  • Art of the Fugue, Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Zhu Xiao-Mei, Accentus Music CD, ACC 30308)
  • “But I did not consider that the spirit of the depths from time immemorial and for all the future possesses a greater power than the spirit of this time, who changes with the generations. Carl Jung, The Red Book.
  • Modern Music’s Death by Autotune (Rick Beato video)