Journal: Blind Joe Death

February 6, 2022 7:39 am Last Homely House (reading room)

Sunday. Foggy February morning. Quiet at the Last Homely House “east of the sea.” Audio world this morning: John Fahey, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Side A, Track 2: “Orinda, Moraga.” The tune always calls my thoughts to the Old Ground in California. No regrets. Those were blessed days. So are these—quieter, gentler, but still sustained by grace. The winter mist reminds me of other vaporous mornings at St. Mary’s College as I meandered under leaden grey sunrise to the cafeteria for breakfast—where my friends whispered muted morning words over coffee, eggs, and toast. After murmuring my own half-asleep words I was off to early daylight Shakespeare with Bob Hass. Student days. Fifty years past.

This morning Stephen King, a different literature. The Dark Tower 3: The Waste Lands. Gunslingers, giant robot bears, murderous choo-choo trains, and magic doors to other worlds.  Here in the Pacific Northwest I am not living in a waste land. Tall pine trees wait like guardians in this misty air. The ravaged world of crazed humans seems far away yet akin to King’s peculiar tales. The Last Homely House is a place of cool contemplation. This is my home. My center. This is New Ground. It has taken four winters for me to settle into it the same way I dwell under my blankets at night. This is my place of rest. It holds the past. It contains the present. It becomes the future day by day.

These words are Sunday morning contemplation. Self-sermons. As I write, Fahey is picking out “Bicycle Built for Two.” The itinerant guitarist is buried not far from here, in Salem in a non-descript cemetery in a non-descript grave. He died in poverty and ill health. I visited his resting place a couple years back. I need to visit again. I’ve heard the voice of his guitar countless times over the last half century. It’s a reliable comfort.

Each day I have time to wait for my voices to arise. One is here now as I write this. A different voice from Deejay, Elder Richard, Young Richard, and Kid Richard—the characters that inhabit my new writing project. This journal is my practical voice—the laidback amiable speech of an aging grateful man who lives with an open heart and mind. Settled, yet still aware that life can change to tragedy in an instant.

The source of my voices always has been literature. From the very beginning: Dick and Jane. The Cat in the Hat. Aesop’s Fables. Winnie the Pooh. Hardy Boys. Tom Swift Jr. Poe. H.G. Wells. Robert Louis Stevenson. Jack London. Isaac Asimov. Arthur C. Clarke.

And then—Tolkien. Life change. Desire to write. Read. Read. Read. Especially on Sunday mornings like this one except then living in a new house built in lima bean fields that were giving way to tract homes—parcels sold by the children of farmers who were dying off. I’d go paperback shopping with JS at the Book Nook or ride my bike to the Oxnard library on Saturdays to find more science fiction. Also Dickens, TS Eliot, Orwell, Conan Doyle. Meetings with JS at the Patiogon, our name for his parent’s sheltered back porch where we would make up stories. Now we meet on Tuesday mornings over the Internet.

All I wanted to do was read and understand how books functioned. No argument about what to study as a college student. My parents let me read as much I wanted. No questions asked. They never asked “what are you going to fall back on?” Dived right in. I lived in pools of words, swimming in them. Chaucer. Milton. Shakespeare. Then wham!—James Joyce: Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home. Yeats: O may the moon and sunlight seem / One inextricable beam / For if I triumph I must make men mad. Blake: I will not cease from Mental Fight.

In the background always SF/Fantasy/Mystery. Saki short stories. Chekhov. Summer of 73–reading War and Peace on a cross-country trip in the back of Dad’s ugly Cadillac and the sudden realization that my mind was my own, unchained. Impossible for it to be caged even if I was taken prisoner like Pierre Bezukhov.

On to my own life from there. Living in Bollinger Canyon. Constant reading of spiritual texts. Alan Watts. Aldous Huxley. I Ching, the Wilhelm/Baynes translation. Jung. Campbell. Poems. Gary Snyder. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Stories and yarns: James Clavell Shogun. Late Dickens—Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, novels that verged on modernism.

After I met Candace: Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, Yukio Mishima, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann—literature I was never exposed to in college. Quiet nights where the two of us read by the fire in a silent house as John Fahey played The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death in the background there as well. Living our Way of the West while the horses nickered in the back yard and views of Hunsaker Canyon sunrises and sunsets blossomed at the ridge behind a house that no longer exists.

Then children: reading to them aloud from Golden Books and all the books Candace and I had read as kids. Quiet evenings in Lucille Lane with all of us absorbed in a book. I turned to Faulkner. History. The American Civil War. Page Smith. Mark Twain. Jack London—this time the novels and stories I didn’t know. Martin Eden. The Star Rover. The Red One. The realization that Jack was writing science-fiction and mythic fantasy. So many books. I can’t remember them all. I have lists in my archives.

Reading on BART on the way into the City to wrestle with technology and earn my lucre. More Zen—translations by Thomas Cleary. Always more poems. Deep Time stuff: Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality—a recognition that I was an Integral guy. Linkages and fragments fell into place. Self-published Full Canvas. Assisted JS with first drafts of his early books. Photography came back and that got connected as well.

Tragedy. My world fell apart. Losses: friends, in-laws, spouse—end of their days. I was drop kicked out of the Real World. Three years of putting pieces back in order, integrating them again. Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. Landing here in the Pacific Northwest at the Last Homely House, my bookshelves loaded with gems from the past and books yet to be read. The whole house is my library. Some volumes are penned with inscriptions by my lost ones. Also shelves crammed with recorded music—compact discs and vinyl treasures constantly rotating. Billions of musical notes in my mind like all the billions of words.

My own words are emerging because I have the time to listen to the voices in my imagination and put them in the computer. Winterland Nights in 2020. An ongoing book about the Beatles unlike any Beatle book ever written, I hope. I write for Boomers who love old music. Write what you know. My own words rising out of a lifetime of learning. There’s still time. Make haste. Time to do some transfiguration of my own.

Here I go.

No Confirmation Required

January 18, 2022, 5:24 am Last Homely House (reading room)

A thought: doing things for the sheer joy of doing things. No reason other than the making. Gathering thoughts, visions, and emotions together into forms of art: words, images, sounds, some organized and others random. All of that with no expectation or need of validation other than the doing of it. No transactions. No monetary gain. No emotional return. Only the process. No goal other than the creation.

Is that purity or reality? Is it a rejection of profit and motive or is it the actual core of creativity? If it is the latter (and I believe it to be) then how does one live in a culture like ours where confirmation is measured at best by the temporary pleasure of ego stroking and at worst by the shallow endorsement of monetary worth? Because any way you measure the result of the process, all of it is impermanent, even the doing. Eminent art that endures through centuries is dwarfed by geologic time. Bach and Shakespeare will not survive the heat death of the universe and the end of entropy.

No—it’s all in the crafting. In the pure grace of it. The fun of it. The joy. For some reason that I’ll never fathom, that is where I have arrived. In fact, where I have always been from the beginning.

These thoughts arrive after an hour of meditation, which came after another 4:15 am wake up out of a dream that was so utterly stupid that I gave up trying to sleep. (My rest had already been punctuated by wakefulness.) In the dream I needed to catch a ferry to “Alameda” and after walking slowly across a familiar beach (recognizable from countless other ludicrous dreams) and through a rundown casino populated by sinister criminal characters and worn down down on their luck folks standing in long queues for no evident purpose, I looked across a hopeless, ugly, colorless landscape that revealed no path to my goal. It was not an alameda, no promenade shaded by trees. I awoke swearing—angry at the dream because it was hopeless and meaningless.

Yet I am encouraged by the realization of joy having nothing to do whatsoever with our cultural madness. What I do here in this journal, what I do in the studio, as well as the actions I take during the day in sustaining my existence here in the unconventional and mystical Pacific Northwest require no validation. They are things in themselves. Ding an sich. As they are, they are what they are—Isness. Little bits of the Kosmos. That’s all. Not quite Kant—but also more than Kant. Numinous, not philosophical. Reality, not sophistry.

Perhaps all my experiences are a lingering dream, sometimes stupid, sometimes sublime, cresting to moments of elation when my heart opens to everything and words do not suffice. My past is present. My future is unclear, but overflows with hope and gratitude. Everything I do is a totem from the day before, revealing a path that meanders to the next present moment.

The poem of the mind in the act of finding   

What will suffice. It has not always had   

To find: the scene was set; it repeated what   

Was in the script.

                               Then the theatre was changed   

To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

Of Modern Poetry, Wallace Stevens.

Something Intimately at Hand

4.17.20 9:36 am Last Homely House

“It has something to do with presence—not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.”

Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cowley Publications: 2001) 

Outside my studio window the morning light emblazons the maple trees in the backyard. I often feel a communion with that luminosity, except at those moments when my dualistic mind kicks in and my ego overwhelms my reverie with anxieties of one sort or another. During the last six years I have migrated from hope to fear and back quite often. That cycling has been due to the abrupt changes in my life walk. Through it all, when my head cleared and I was able to see my way past my troubles I have come face to face with that “something” that I can only label as God. That proper noun seems inadequate because of what most people assume it signifies—which is not what I mean at all.

“Being met” with that communion and sense of love for me as who I am, is what I think Bourgeault means by mystical hope. It’s what I am writing about in Winterland Nights, though I don’t tell it—I try to show it—as in the final scene that finishes Chapter 14. It is “an abiding state of being” whether I am aware of it or not. It is subtle—yet sometimes obvious. When I become aware of it my eyes tear up and I am filled with an indescribable emotion, a bliss state that transcends all my ego experience and simply sustains me with love. I do not want to break off the intimate connection to that condition when I am cognizant of it.

I sensed it the other night as I was reading a poem by Joy Harjo from An American Sunrise, titled “Directions to You Rainy Dawn Ortiz” (pg. 22). It begins:

Follow them, stop, turn around
Go the other way.
Left, right,
Mine, yours.
We become lost,
Take a deep breath,
You will not always be lost.
You are right here,
In your time,
In your place.

Then, yesterday, as I sat in the passenger seat of Paul’s truck riding through the valley of the White Salmon River, and later, eating my lunch while standing in the empty parking lot of the Mt. Adams Ranger District building, I could discern my departed ones enfolding me, not physically—though I like to imagine it that way—but spiritually. As I think about it I see that they are now bound up in that same communion. As Harjo writes: You are right here, / in your time, / in your place. That comforts me.

This does as well:

But we do hope. It is the main impulse of life. Why do we awake to a new day anticipating that things will improve? What accounts for the hope which lies within us? If life was simply about random particles interacting with no purpose or meaning, death too would be meaningless.

Ilia Delio, Hope in a Time of Crisis

I suppose all these thoughts are whirling around inside of me because of the pandemic and all the psychic energy that’s being projected by multitudes of people. That’s unmeasurable of course and easily dismissed empirically. But I can’t do that. There was a time that I tried, but my heart wasn’t in it. Something inside of me—the poet, mystic, artist, and creative man—wanted me to understand that Flatland thinking can only explain everything as particles interacting “with no purpose or meaning.” Not much poetry there! Now, in this time and place, in these circumstances, it’s obvious to me that the myriad things are not obvious.

Instead, there “is something intimately at hand.” The fact that I can’t fix a specific word on it just shows how intimate it is. That truth disturbs some people, so they either dismiss it as unscientific, or smother it in sentimentalism or literalism and remove all the sacredness from it.

There is nothing new in this journal today, save for the definition of hope as mystical. These days of waiting and quarantine are starting to seem like a blessing to me. I’m not sure what I really mean by that other than the outside world, that I normally discount, is now so quiet it seems not to really exist. I find that fascinating, because somehow that also comforts me. It is possible that this experience that everyone one is part of (“we are all in this together”) is a turning point. Maybe we are close to that moment of global awakening that I have hoped for. I will not dwell on that. All that’s important now is that I sustain my health and write, think, read, and care for my little piece of Earth and Heaven.

Seal Rock State Park, Oregon – photo by Richard Gylgayton

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:

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)


In a world where, as one poet says, “people seem to speak to each other mostly for profit,” it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.

The Art of Voice – Poetic Principle and Practice, Tony Hoagland

There was a time when endless days of rain made me sad—but no longer.

This is my third Oregon January. I am accustomed to the climate now. I enjoy walking in the rain—primarily because there are fewer people. I’m not a curmudgeon, but these days I find my fellow humans to be a distraction. It’s a side effect of the pandemic. How can I be fond of people and treat them with my normal friendliness when they may actually be a threat to my life because they refuse to wear a mask?

I can’t suffer fools, not gladly. I used to be forced into doing so—in professional life one has to get along with people simply to survive. But no longer. I’m free of that. Instead, I muster the patience required to move aside from the unmasked people that jog by me on the narrow forest paths of Mary S. Young Park State Park along the west shore of the Willamette River, trailing their possibly infected breath behind them invisibly. Do they actually observe anything as they run? Do they smell the clean air? Are they happy? I never see them smiling.

I suspect they are running from something.

I know I can’t outrun anything, physically or metaphorically. Sometimes when I walk in the rain, I lower the hood of my jacket and lift my face to the moisture. It seems reasonable to do that—as if I am having a conversation with another aspect of the higher power. OK, I get it, I say to myself. Rain on my soul and heart. Awaken me. Thank you.

I don’t run from those random interludes of grace. I embrace them. I can hear the rain falling, see the water running everywhere in streams and rivulets, and recall that my body and brain are mostly made of water and that electricity dashes through the tissues of my flesh and the soft matter within my skull. Nature is inside me. My soul is moist here in Oregon, swelling after dry years in California.

There is no fever within me now. Many memoirists write about trauma. Is that why they have an audience? Because the reader can say I hear you brother/sister. Been there. I have not been maltreated. My only distress is that of grief, and it has calmed through the passage of time—but I try to understand the suffering of others. Doing that is easier than bearing fools.

I wonder who my audience is, and if I had one, would they experience what I write in the same way? My story is not exciting, not filled with triumph—but is that an attraction? Does anyone really want to read a memoir by someone who came from a functional family enhanced by love, faith, and normality?

There really is no answer to that vexed and unanswerable question. I write because I write. There is only the need to get the voice up and running and let it speak—that voice that needs to be released, not for any other reason that it requires to be released.

The writer understands, at least unconsciously, that the voice needs to tell a story, and create a journey—perhaps fictive or true or both. It is an intimate act. Writing is the most private art. It’s a direct connection between the electricity in the writer brain to the reader brain, and the mystery is that neither side can experience the connection at the same time. It’s a malleable, mental illumination that can’t be measured empirically, and that can’t be denied as a mere hallucination or fantasy because it is not reducible to anything other than the closest thing that we have to mind-reading or casting thoughts into each other’s heads.

It’s an aspect of the human experience of the spiritual creatures that we really are—locked into our own ego-skulls, lonely and craving companionship. Poets, writers, playwrights, wordsmiths of every kind—perhaps even those who write shopping lists occasionally—tell a story, simply because it desires to be told and because writers live within their own metafictive worlds.

That’s the basic truth of literature. Writers have a voice. Readers search it out. No one can explain that in the same way that we can talk about calendars, longitude, latitude, chemistry, or any of the touchable sciences. The voice vaults from Imagination.

I’m mortal. Anything I write will be left behind, but who am I to think that anything I create, no matter how lucid or beautiful, is really of any great importance other than the expressions of a spiritual being who was given the gift of human experience?

I can’t deny the rain in January, or the fact that a half million Americans are dead from Covid-19, or that I can’t travel anywhere because of the pandemic—nor the fact that there are so many fools in this world requiring that I bear their existence so I can work on my own compassion and patience, hopefully compensating for my own foolishness.

I am living in my own metafiction. The rain is falling. There’s a break coming up soon. I will walk and remove my hood and await the voice, which is always there, riding on the atmospheric river, and flowing from my soul. It’s what I do, and I’ll keep at it.

Willamette River – Mary S. Young State Park – Photos by Richard Gylgayton

Note on the text from Wikipedia.

Anthony Dey Hoagland (November 19, 1953 – October 23, 2018) was an American poet. His poetry collection, What Narcissism Means to Me (2003), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Wikipedia article about Tony Hoagland

Poems by Tony Hoagland at the Poetry Foundation

Skamokawa (“Smoke Over the Water”)

When we experience our own desire for transformation, we are feeling the universe evolving through us.

Barbara Marx Hubbard

April 18, 2021 

After a night of restless sleep, I made some sandwiches and packed up chips, water, granola bars, and chocolate—also added a few books to my writing backpack and made sure the Nikon D810 had freshly charged batteries and was secure in its bag. Then I arranged everything in the car. I never did read or take pictures during the entire day trip, but bringing books, writing tools and cameras is part of the ritual of getting on the road.

I left the house at 10:30 am, north on I-205 to I-5. Light traffic. My black 2021 Subaru Outback Onyx XT, named Dark Star, is a comfortable touring car fitted with 21st Century technology. Safe. Quiet. Reliable. I was ready for a protracted drive to places in the Pacific Northwest I had not yet seen.

The Grateful Dead channel on Sirius XM played a show from Baltimore May 26, 1977. I tuned in for the last three numbers: Not Fade Away, Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad, Around and Around. I wasn’t feeling dispirited, but the music was appropriate. Left I-5 at WA-432 through Longview (where I went last week in the other direction) to WA-4. Longview is a depressing pit of a port—the smell of sawdust in the air mingled with diesel exhaust. The stink of extractive, unsustainable commerce. The trees are cut into lumber there and sent up and down the river to who-knows where.

The smell reminded me that I need to read Richard Hugo (I started to do that months ago and never made a dent). WA-4 is a two-lane 55 mph road. There was light traffic through Stella, Oak Point, Eagle Cliff, and Waterford. Stunning views of the spacious Columbia River. Lots of haze—not good light for photos so I took it all in with my eyes and memory. Cathlamet is the big town on the route. There’s a bridge there that crosses the river to an island where there is a ferry crossing on the south shore to Westport, Oregon. I’ll explore that at another time.

My goal was Altoona, not so much because it was a real destination for views and photos but because it has the same name as the town in Pennsylvania, where I was born in 1953. That’s a pointless reason for a road trip but it got me going on an impulsive morning.

WA-4 turns north and west away from the river at Skamokawa—a Chinook word for “smoke over the water.” I love those Native American names.  Except for Cathlamet, these towns are easy to miss. In some of them the speed limit isn’t even reduced. Somewhere near Gray’s River I came up on a cowboy in a pickup pulling a trailer. There was a restomodded, lavender Harley motorcycle haphazardly strapped to the trailer and the cowboy was going 30 mph and weaving back and forth in the lane. This idiot was oblivious, and the terrible driving went on for about ten minutes until a big Ford F150 pickup appeared in my rear-view mirror. Not wanting to be hemmed in between the two trucks I gave Dark Star the beans and blew around the cowboy when the road was clear. The F150 passed at the same time and started to creep up on me. I kept my foot down and left him behind. The tailgating here has become worse since the pandemic started and I’ve had enough of it. It was the first two lane passing job I’d done in the Outback XT and took me by satisfying surprise, very little turbo lag (far less than my 2015 Forester XT) and immense amounts of torque.

(Click on map to scroll and zoom)

At Rosburg (population 317) I took the side road to Altoona (population 39)—Altoona-Pillar Rock Road. Six miles of farms and out of the way homes. After three miles the Columbia appeared again, wide, patient, calm. There’s nothing in Altoona except a few upscale houses (comparatively upscale for the Pacific Northwest—not McMansions) and plenty of “No Trespassing” and “No Parking” signs. Not an inch of public land except for a pullover where there are two informational plaques about Lewis and Clark and their adventures on the other side of the Columbia. The plaques were dirty and forgotten. I ate my lunch and listened to the silence. No traffic. Just me on the side of the road. So much for Altoona. Like my birthplace it’s a place where no one goes.

Before the Second World War Altoona was one of six fish canneries in the Gray’s Bay area of the Columbia River, but after 1940 the salmon fishing industry declined and the cannery in Altoona closed in 1947. The building remained derelict for decades and collapsed in heavy weather sometime in the late 1990’s.  There is nothing left of the old town except for hundreds of vertical pier-support poles rotting along the shore. A woman mowed the lawn in front of her decorative home as I passed, and a man in a golf cart waved at me after I turned around where the road dead ends. There’s a one lane private track that continues past the end of the two-lane, but I wanted to move on, and frankly I didn’t have any business exploring it.

As I moved on I kept thinking of climate change and wondering what will happen to that shoreline in fifty years. I can’t help but have doom-thoughts now and then, and I thought about that fact as I drove back up to WA-4.

A few miles past Naselle I turned south, and there was US-101 again—that “hard road to travel.” All through my West Coast life from 1966 on, I’ve rambled and meandered on sections of that prolonged road. I had not been on the Oceanview—Cape Disappointment section of the route since 1977 and I had no visual memories at all about the views of Willapa Bay or the Wildlife Refuge there. As this was a daytime scouting trip I didn’t stop.

The coast at Bandon, Oregon (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Mist hung over the bay, and bloated, grey clouds obscured the sun—coastal weather that soothes my soul. I pondered living on the coast of Oregon when I made my plans to move from California in 2018, but they were half-baked considerations. I knew I had to be near my daughter in Portland, as well as an airport and hospitals. The Pacific Coast remains home ground for me, whether it’s Sea Ranch and Mendocino in California or Bandon and Coos Bay in Oregon. In a couple of days I’ll be joining Paul in Brookings. Later in the year I’ll return to northbound 101 back to the Hoh Rain Forest and a long meditative sit at La Push. The memories made there in 1977 have called to me for years like a far-off voice from my youth that floats above the surface of my consciousness reminding me of unfinished business. I’m not sure what that business is—not now. But I have no doubt that someday it will reveal itself.

A quick stop at Chinook County Park for some coffee from the thermos I brought with me. Chinook (population 457) is another former salmon harvest town. I sat on a stump with my coffee where the Columbia flows into Baker Bay and again watched the mist-smoke float above calm water. There was no one there but me. These parts of the Pacific Northwest present an impression of vintage decline and frailty—as if no one is really living there. It makes me think that the planet is patiently waiting to see what humanity will do at the crossroads we occupy—the point where Business As Usual is an obvious fantasy. What next? Some say it will be the Great Turning. I have no idea, and despite my natural optimism I’m not sure we are up for that challenge. But the bay was beautiful, and the hovering fog calmed my negative reflection. The coffee was still hot from the morning—the miracle of the thermos—and I sat for many minutes watching the water lap against the shore and the saturated driftwood, scattered there by tides and currents.

Astoria -Megler Bridge (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Then I crossed over the Astoria-Megler bridge. It’s the longest truss bridge in America. I had not traversed it since 1977, coming south from the Olympic Peninsula with my amigo JS, though I’ve been in Astoria a few times since relocating to Portland. It’s not an elegant bridge by any means, but its sheer practicality is in itself a statement of engineering fortitude. I’m sure Lewis and Clark would never have imagined such a thing—which makes me wonder what things will be built—or removed—on Planet Earth long after I travel over the metaphysical bridge that we all eventually cross.

I considered continuing on 101 south and then returning to Portland on OR-26, but the GPS warned me that there had been a major accident there, so I took OR-30 east instead and left the hard road that was not so hard behind me for the day. Jethro Tull was my accompaniment back to the Longview Bridge and I-5 South. Home at 5:15. Total mileage was 280. 31 miles to the gallon. Not bad, despite the CO2 I left behind me—my own Business As Usual.

It was good to get out on the road. I’ve been feeling stale because of all the shut-in languishing I’ve gone through for the last year. The new memoir project is temporarily stalled. I’ve done some rewriting of material for this new blog but I did little sustained reading last week. It’s a neutral phase of creativity—I need to break out of it. A camping trip will help. Brookings awaits. These last few weeks I’ve increased my range of travel east and west and I’m returning to a section of Oregon I know well. Paul’s done some research on back roads in the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest and I need some Ocean Time and negative ions.

After dinner I watched a YouTube video titled “20 Greatest Rock Guitar Riffs” (coincidentally Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” was one of them) and afterwards I thought about the fact that I am at a turning point, like all of us. The last year was unexpected and uncertain. Now is the beginning of a new beginning and as the Sage says, new beginnings are problematic. Yet when one considers the limitations objectively, hopeful change is possible.

Always mist, fog, smoke—skamokawa. I’ll remember that word and all the memories and hopes floating above the water. I have time for considering them now at length. Maybe it’s my own personal Great Turning at the start of new changes. If so, I’m ready for those adjustments to chase away my doom-thoughts and reopen my stale mind to gratitude and transformation once more.

Difficulty at the beginning works supreme success / Furthering through perseverance.

— I Ching

Grace and Memoir

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing

Ephesians 2:8
King Tide at Seal Rock, Oregon (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Grace exposes all our gifts, both those we hold and those we have lost. Love enters our life through grace. The certainty of grace is gentle and subtle, and explaining it might destroy it, like locking a butterfly in a tin box.

I can only try through example: my brother and my dog are in the house with me, sharing my life in Oregon. They both appeared into my life unbidden. The giver of those two gifts is much greater than the “I” that is aware of the gift. In fact, the temporary identity of my ego is so busy with unimportant things most of the time that it is generally unaware of the love and grace that the giver constantly provides.

Perhaps that is why when I am cognizant of grace because I have taken the time to be mindful, my heart opens, and I feel a concentrated emotion that I also cannot describe. The inability to explain it is not because I do not have a talent for creating sentences. It is not that more words would help, it’s that all of them are inadequate.

The explanatory impossibility exists because the gifts are too considerable and generous for me to understand in the way that we normally define perception, like other inexpressible things: a sunrise, music, the laughter of children, and friends who have appeared and joined me on my travels.

When Saint Paul says “this is not your own doing” he is speaking of the giver: the gift of God. I know that there are those who may read that and shake their heads in dissatisfaction with the proper noun. We live in an empirical and materialistic age, where most of what occurs is described through pragmatic, rigid terms. I don’t deny that, nor do I reject it.

Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

I carry both the pragmatic and metaphysical viewpoints of the world in my consciousness. But as I have grown older and realize that most of my life has already been lived, that sensation of the gift of grace has existed consistently and I have to accept that there is something undefinable that provides all the love that has sustained my life.

My own experience tells me that the higher power cares for me. The realization is not attached to any specific belief or faith. The tradition in which I was raised is as human as anything else, thus it is filled with error, confusion and the projection of power, both at the institutional and personal level. The traditional Western churches lost their way long ago. Today we see some of them (far too few) realizing that and attempting to change. What I am describing has extraordinarily little to do with religion as we commonly understand it. The appreciation of grace is devoid of dogma, authority, belief, rituals, or tribal relationships.

I am not making a case for anything specific because what I speak of is indefinable—except for the simple fact that when I take time to reflect, I can see moments when there was something significant at work that could not be measured. It was, and is, simply there, especially when the events of my life were arduous and filled with sadness and stress. At those times I feel beneficence from outside of my small self.

When my heart fills with wonder, when I surrender to the actuality of grace transforming me in small and detailed ways in a world that appears to be out of control—that is when I feel the human condition most vitally.

I am learning my own past all over again. I am examining the years I have already experienced and rediscovering the moments of grace of which I was unaware. In so doing I am more sensitive to its frequent presence as I live through the latter stages of my life. The harsh world we have created obscures the simple miracles that actually sustain us. Yet they are there and when the veil falls we can perceive them with gratitude and read our own story.


My Shadow at Coos Bay (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Another late rise because of a late night. Coffee in hand. Oh, that’s good coffee. I’m thinking about the day ahead. Cool and cloudy for once. I can get some outside work done. Time to water the plants. I keep forgetting. 

My self-imposed news blackout continues. Sick of it all. The evil spreads like unbreathable vapor from a swamp filled with Lovecraftian monstrosities. I keep thinking how much easier it is to love than hate.

The problem is fear. Even the rich are afraid. They are more anxious than anyone else. They have more to lose, so they think. I lost almost everything that was significant to me, yet here I am. Alive. Happy. Lonely, but satisfied.

Accepting the loneliness is how you get to enlightenment. Goldberg in Wild Mind. She’s talking to her Roshi: 

“Are you lonely?” I asked him. 

“Of course,” he answered. “But I do not let it toss me away. It is just loneliness.”

So there you have it. There are days I think, how did I get into this writing? But here I am. And the truth is I wanted it.

I get it. I feel like raising my hand and waving it like an excessively enthusiastic student. I always wanted this. I never really thought about it because I had responsibilities. Like Candace, I also had “things that need to be done.” She said that whenever I encouraged her to write more often. Exactly those words. Every single time.

That’s all completed. The remaining responsibilities I have are minor. The girls are grown. Candace has passed. Finn needs me, but he’s laid back. Willing to wait for me in all things. He’s growing old as I grow old. He won’t outlive me though. I ponder that reality often. There are layers to loneliness. Dogs struggle with it also.

Here I am by fate, accident, karma, or as the Chinese say, the “Will of Heaven.” I am lonely. Yes. But so is everyone else. Nothing new there. It is just loneliness. I knew that before I migrated. It’s not so bad. It’s beautiful here. Huge sky. Big clouds. Low stress. Besides, I was lonely in my former home. Those days I was terrified by my solitude. Now, I relish it.

Writing is the reason I am here. I didn’t think much about it when I decided to move. I had other priorities. But it was there, unconsciously. 

Everyone is lonely, even when they are with other people. “Alone with others,” as Stephen Batchelor writes. “Our sense of aloneness and individuality is only conceivable in the light of our constant coexistence with other human beings, and we can only be together with others and participate in their lives because we and all others are in fact distinct individuals.

That’s why there are so damn many love songs and poems. That’s the only way we can even begin to cross the divide and ride the Great Silence between us all. We can recognize others as individuals, but we cannot be inside their heads and their experience. 

So, some of us write. Others make music or art. Cook. Build furniture. Design things. Figure things out scientifically. “Art is a thing done well.” I think Amanda Coomaraswamy said that.

“What is done in love is done well.” I know Vincent Van Gogh said that. 

Process, not outcome. I’ll go deeper and bring the light to the shadows. Light the swamp. Defeat the monsters. That’s what heroes do, after all.


Wild Mind, Living the Writer’s Life, Natalie Goldberg, Bantam Books. 1990

Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor, Grove Press, 1983

Tell Me Everything You Know About Coffee

Coffee at Lassen Nation Park – 1980

In the kitchen of the Hamilton Road house in Pittsburgh there was a percolator where the brew lurked, bubbling, boiling, and emitting the scent of burned food. Years later whenever I drove across the Bay Bridge, as I drew closer to the City, I was aware of the same smell from the Hills Brothers roasting plant on Harrison Street. Charred toast was the scented entry ambience of the City on my way to concerts at Winterland. That roasting facility no longer exists, another element of the old and treasured San Francisco that disappeared when the middle-class was purged after the century turned. The roasted odor was less pleasant than the aroma of apples from the packing plant I visited before we left rural Pennsylvania, but subtler than the acrid reek of cooked pickles at the Heinz plant in Pittsburgh where my Uncle Gene took me on a tour when I was in sixth grade. Though I was not a coffee drinker, whenever I crossed the Bay Bridge I felt as if I was entering a utopia of musical freedom.

Coffee was something that parents, aunts and uncles drank. I was not permitted to drink it. That was okay with me. I had no desire to taste it. The percolator was a suspect piece of technology and I wanted nothing to do with it. It was easy to obey the rules that forbade things that repelled me. There was even a more sinister looking device at my Great Aunt Margaret’s house made of two glass bowls stacked on top of one another that looked like a mechanism from one of the science-fiction comic books that I read under the blankets at night. Aunt Margaret was a stolid woman with a loud voice and her coffee maker burbled in the corner of her kitchen as formidably as she did.
When setting up my home in Bollinger Canyon I tried making my own coffee for the first time. It was something from a can, Folgers probably. Stale and vile. I poured it all down the drain and made a cup of Constant Comment tea, something that I could taste that matched up with the subtle thoughts that came to mind as I lived quietly in the country. That flavor seemed like the poems I was trying to write. Coffee was for novelists and storytellers.
I no longer remember when caffeine captivated me. It must have been after I met Candace. Everything she made in the kitchen was miraculous. Throughout our marriage there were moments when she would insist that I try something for the first time: escargot, red cabbage, artichokes. It’s an adventure, Richard, she would say to me whenever I hesitated. We brewed our coffee in a drip filter on top of a thermos, a device we later used when we camped. A few tablespoons in a paper filter and the methodical addition of boiling water were the components of the ritual. White filters. Later we switched to the unbleached brown variety at the suggestion of my mother, who claimed that the white ones contained nasty chemicals.
We had an unconventional espresso maker, a perplexing Italian device. Valves and curved pipes protruded from it like something from a steampunk story. I have no idea where it came from; strange kitchen implements came to Candace like lost orphans looking for parents. It sat directly on the stove and threatened to explode if it was not watched carefully. We used it rarely because we did not have the courage or the patience to wait for it to gradually leak espresso when the valve was opened. For three decades it sat in a box of kitchen tools, unused, balefully gleaming. I no longer have it. I got rid of it when I purged my possessions before moving to Oregon.
When I reached middle-age, coffee became a daily vital fluid, and I became the coffee master, though I never took the role as seriously as some of my friends who developed an unfortunate tendency to coffee snobbery. In the morning I would grind the beans (never the night before, the grinding was a part of waking up) and either use one of the many drip coffee makers that passed through our kitchen through the years or, if it was a weekend, a French press. Then I would bring coffee to my wife and sit on the edge of the bed as we sipped and talked in low voices so as not to wake the children.
In 2003 when I began working South of Market at Second and Brannan, I would stop at the Peet’s on the corner of Mission Street and buy a giant cup of brew. There was a public atrium in the building that overlooked the busy intersection and I would sit and read Buddhist texts, write in my journal, and compose poems once more. Coffee was no longer just for prose. I loved the intense taste of Major Dickinson’s blend, something I cannot find here in Portland, where local roasting dominates the market. For months I would stop at that seat of quiet reflection, the High Place as I called it, because I always sat at a table on a balcony where I could look down on reality as if I was transcending normal space and time.
After Candace died so much of the joy of tasting new things left me. I still made coffee in the morning in the kitchen that she designed, but it was not the same ritual anymore. After the initial shock of her sudden death I started journaling again. I would sit at the dining table, or my desk in my office upstairs, and drink coffee that no longer seemed associated with a vibrant time and place. No poems, no fiction, but many words that allowed my grief to ebb and flow out of me until I was emptied of sadness for that day. Major Dickinson did not taste the same without her. I moved on to other blends, and other rooms.
She had given me a small espresso machine years before and I would use that to make flavored brews with whipped milk, a sort of ersatz cappuccino. There was a period when Ariana worked as a barista and her tips on how to steam the milk lingered with me after she left home to live her own life.
I have always wanted one of those elaborate and expensive Breville machines that make perfect espresso. My friends in Santa Cruz own one; a present from Eileen’s eccentric brother, a massive device that dominates the kitchen like a silver god when they bring it in from its storage place in the garage. When I stay with them, Jainen makes the coffee in the morning using the tried and true drip method, pouring water carefully with great care and mindfulness. Coffee made by friends always seems better than what I make and drink alone.
This morning, before I came into my office to write, my brother made coffee. He is living with me now and has taken the responsibility for the morning brew. Over the past few days we have made some adjustments in its creation. He likes his coffee “black as the devil, hot as hell” as Talleyrand said. I am more sedate. I require half and half with no sugar. For me, that is where the poetry lives, and it has returned in this new land of contemplative rain and subtle grey skies, where I am waking up all over again. It’s an adventure, after all.