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.

The Tension of Memory: 1

Mount Diablo from Acalanes Ridge
Thursday morning I arose to a beautiful early Spring day. The first little hint of March warmth had emerged, and there were birds singing and Finn was restless. I took him for a long walk and gave him breakfast and then grabbed my camera bag and left him behind to travel up the flanks of Mount Diablo by myself for the first in three years. I was compelled to have a little picnic at a location that I remembered. A memory had arisen because of that last post I wrote about my father.
Mount Diablo from Acalanes Ridge

I have lived within sight of the mountain for almost fifty years, ever since I situated myself in Contra Costa County to study for my BA in English at Saint Mary’s College of California. My roots here go very deep now, probably just as deep as the roots of Diablo. You can’t help but see the mountain when you move around this area living your daily life. While it’s not extremely high (3849 ft.) it dominates the horizon simply because the rest of the geography consists mainly  of low rolling hills. And the view from the summit on a clear day is spectacular. And depending upon where you are when you are looking at it, the mountain can seem bigger or smaller, as if it is actually shrinking or growing within your own vision as you move about.

Most of the time I take the mountain for granted—I don’t go up there as often as I used to. I suppose that’s due to the fact that for many years I was busy with my job on the weekdays and my family took up my time during weekends. I used to hike there before the kids were born, and while we would go up there now and then for a picnic, years would pass between excursions. But since my kids grew up and my wife passed away memories come back to me with a sort of tension. They compel me to re-experience the old places that I haunted and to recall the events that transpired as my youth turned to middle age. Now that I have reached my sixties the compulsion to recapture memory has become a daily practice.

I don’t want those memories to evaporate as I grow older. I want to be able to savor them in the way that life should be savored. Because time is always too short. The tension of memory is like an elastic band pulling me back to my past while I remain rooted in the present. That tugging is one of the great pleasures of aging—pleasures that sometimes seem few and far between. Ageing is not for sissies.

Snow on Mount Diablo – 2009

So when I woke up Thursday morning I knew I had to go up the mountain again and I had to go alone this time. Finn was not happy about it, but I needed to do some thinking and make some photographs. And while I love being with my greyhound companion there are times when I need space for myself. I picked up a sandwich for myself at my favorite deli, and within a half hour of driving I went back in time 46 years.

There’s a picnic area just past Rock City that I am fond of. Back in the fall of 1971 just as I was starting my college years at St. Mary’s, my Mom, Dad, brothers and my paternal grandmother and I went up to that spot and had a wonderful lunch. I think it was sometime in October. It may have been the first time I was ever up there. I had just started school and was adjusting to life in the dorms and I remember I was still feeling a little homesick. My father took a picture of us all that day. There’s no date on the print but the brown grass is a giveaway to the fact that it was Fall. I remember being shocked by how hot it was in Contra Costa County in September and how dry the hills were. I had spent the last four years of my life in Oxnard living just a couple of miles from the ocean where the weather was always cool and sometimes foggy.

A picnic spot in 1971

On the far left is my Grandma Mellie, my father’s mom, who had traveled out from Tyrone PA. My mom is in the pink skirt (not the best view, but typical of my father’s humor). That’s Paul in the tree (he was always a tree climber and occasionally fell out of them) and Chris with a movie camera. (I wonder where that film is?) I’m concentrating on eating. Looks like burgers for lunch. We always ate well. Note the ubiquitous coffee pot on the camp stove that was sitting on the BBQ pit made from rocks. Back in those days coffee was a beverage you had with lunch and dinner, not something you only consumed in order to wake up in the morning. The coffee was cheap and came in a can. I hated coffee in those days. It was vile stuff. I’m still amazed that people buy the crap that comes in cans and consider it worth drinking.

A picnic spot in 2017

On Thursday I found the spot again. The oak tree that was right next to the table was very old and quite large as you can see from the photo. The tree is no longer there, but there is a stump, and the same table. I sat and ate my sandwich and it felt splendid to have come full circle. The tension of memory was perfectly balanced; I was in the past and the present at the same moment. We tend to forget the fact that we actually live in one long moment of Now. The Past is in our recollections and the Future is in our expectations while the time clock of our life ticks away the moments.

The experience of being there again felt larger than life, one of those moments when all the pieces fall together in a synchronous way and you just have to laugh at the wonder of it all. 46 years had passed, and so much had happened. For the first time in three years I felt very much at peace with all of it and realized that I was finally starting to live again. I have attached pictures to this post of what that spot looks like as of Thursday, which is now in my memory as the past while I sit here typing this post in the present moment. I remembered the older picture as I ate my lunch so I took a couple of shots from the same angle. It’s the same picnic table and the same BBQ pit, 46 years later. It was a fine old tree. I have no idea what happened to it.  But even specimens of quercus lobata are impermanent, though they can live for hundreds of years.

Looking southwest from the summit road – March 2017

After lunch I drove up to the summit and lo and behold there was snow by the side of the road on the back side of the mountain. Though a snowfall on Mount Diablo now and then is not uncommon, witnessing it is always extraordinary. The road to the summit was closed so I was unable to see the view to the east. Sometimes on a clear day you can see the Sierra from the summit building roof.The view in the other directions from the summit road parking lot was stunning, despite some haze. There is still a lot of moisture evaporating into the atmosphere and the mid-afternoon sun creates a high-contrast light that is challenging for photography.

Quercus lobata – Rocky Point Picnic Area

On the way back down before heading home I made some pictures of some of the other old oaks in another picnic area. As I was shooting I could hear cyclists whizzing down the road and sweeping around the long curves of the highway. I’ll have to go back there at another time of day to capture the good light, but I think that any time of day is a good time to make an image. Photographs are little moments of frozen time. Like memories they depict an experience from the past that still lives in the present. When I photograph I feel as if I am living in a long present moment that stretches in two directions behind me and in front of me. And that same tension that I mentioned earlier lives within the image, taking me back to the time when the experience was recorded and resonating with the memory that lives in my head. I love that tension. It makes the ordinary seem extraordinary.

When I returned home Finn was glad to see me. He always is. Isn’t that the wonderful thing about dogs? They forgive us our transgressions immediately upon our reappearance. The next time I head up the mountain, which will be soon, I’ll have to leave him behind once more, because dogs are not allowed on the trails and I want to revisit some old walking spots that I have not seen in decades. But I know he will forgive me just as the tension of memory absolves me when I return to the places that mean so much to me and that I will continue to describe in words and photographs.

Beware of bikes on blind curves
“You left me alone, but I forgive you.”


The Tiger’s Footsteps

My Father: Dick Gill

Both of my parents were born in Pennsylvania, my mother in 1926 and my father a year later. The area in which they grew up was classic small town America: Huntingdon and Tyrone. It remains that way today, though I have not seen that area since 1973, the last time I traveled that far east of the Mississippi River. In reviewing the Wikipedia articles the population of both municipalities is about the same as it was one hundred years ago. The population remains mostly white. The big industry in Tyrone was a paper mill, which still exists. Both towns were sustained by manufacturing in the past, and much of that no longer exists. I think it’s safe to say that the demographics of both places are representative of the status of most other small towns in this country in 2017.

My Mother: Helen Gill

My mom and dad were both educated in local high schools and met and married sometime in the late forties or early fifties. My mom was raised on a farm in an Irish Catholic family. My father’s background was Methodist, though he converted to Catholicism when he married my mom, a story that I’ll save for another time. I was born in 1953 and I have many memories of my own small town life in another little township named Roaring Spring, which is in the same area of Blair County. My dad had a small appliance and television store there in the Fifties, and if you wanted a black and white console set to watch the two available channels of news and entertainment that were available, he was the guy to see. There were no “big box” stores then.

My father was what we would call in these days an entrepreneur. Back then we called it hustling or horse trading. (Frankly it still is simply that.) He was, at heart, a salesman, and he specialized in the sorts of technologies that we would label today as “geeky”: televisions, cameras, and high-fi systems (before there was stereo). Despite his lack of a higher education my dad was always interested in how things worked. He was inventive and very passionate about music, photography and automobiles. And he used his passion and his interest in those things as a way to make an income. I never really talked with him about it much, but I think he chafed at having to work for someone else. He liked being his own boss. That changed when we moved to California where for some reason he tied himself to an employer. But back in those early days he was his own man.
Tyrone in from of my Grandmother\’s house.
Smoke from paper mill on the right.

If he had been a different personality we would never have moved from that small town and my own parallel universe would have been much different than it is today here on the West Coast. But for some reason that I have either forgotten about or never really knew, my parents moved us twice; first from Roaring Spring to Pittsburgh in 1960, and then from there to California six years later. I probably will never know the root reason for those changes as both of my parents passed away in 1988 and 1993 and there is no one to ask about it anymore, but knowing my father and mother it was probably an economic decision. I’m sure my father was looking for bigger opportunities and my mother, who was also an adventurous sort, went along with it. I also think there may have been some consideration of cleaner air and better environmental health. Those little towns were always close to manufacturing plants that spewed effluvia and toxins into the rivers that ran all through that area. The paper mill in Tyrone was especially nasty. The ecological impact of paper mills is significant.

Pittsburgh in the early sixties

(Side note: There’s a certain irony here in that Pittsburgh itself was anything but eco-friendly in the 20th century. It was known as the Smoky City as the pollution was so bad that the sun was blocked by thick smog during the day. But by the time we moved there in 1960 the “Pittsburgh Renaissance”was underway, and while the mills still turned out immense amounts of steel, the skies were clear. Today the mills are gone and Pittsburgh is consistently rated as one of the best places to live in the United States.)

Window of my Dad\’s store

My dad operated a Lafayette Radio Electronics franchise in downtown Pittsburgh on Grant Street near the Koppers Building until about 1965. I recall that he had to close the store when they built the US Steel Tower and tore up all the old buildings to make way for construction. Again, I’m not sure of the details, but I remember that his job changed and that there was some stress in the family finances. He worked for a portrait photographer for a while and sold cars, but I remember him being rather unhappy because he was no longer his own boss. That discontent was the spur that led us to the big move to California in 1966.

My dad’s pal Harry Shadle with a new loudspeaker

That relocation was a turning point and when I think about it today fifty years later I realize what courage it must have taken on the part of my mother and father to pull up stakes and head West. We had traveled by car to California in 1963, 1964, and 1965. My mother’s brother had moved to La Brea years before and there may have also been an influence there. But I am amazed by the decision: leaving family and tearing up roots to live on the other side of the continent in a search for Opportunity. I’m sure they used every cent they had to pay for the move.

That is a real American story: wanderlust, movement and search. It’s at the root of the human heart, and is firmly ensconced in our American Consciousness.
Or at least it was then. The other day I came across an article on the Washington Post that told of the regrets that some people living in Iowa are having about the irrationalities that are taking place in Washington DC. Iowa is not Pennsylvania, but I know both places well. My experience of the Hawkeye State is a bit more recent because my youngest daughter lives near Iowa City where she studied for her MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I visit her at least once a year and when I do so we take a trip to see her boyfriend’s parents who live up near Dubuque, another American town that once thrived on manufacturing and that has been in the process of reinventing itself with some success in the 21stCentury. I was out there last October, and once you got out of town there were Trump signs everywhere.
Dubuque, Iowa

As I was reading the article I thought of my father and mother and their decision to move west. The gentleman being interviewed works in an aluminum rolling plant, the same facility where his own father worked. He gets good pay and with overtime makes about what I made back in the day when I was an Information Professional, and his money most likely stretches pretty well in Iowa compared to the Bay Area where living costs are higher. He comes across as a thoughtful person and a hard worker. He also usually votes for the Democrats, but not this last time; thus the misgivings. But it wasn’t the regrets regarding the Tangerine Tyrant that struck me. It was this sentence: “ (He) hopes his son will get an apprenticeship at the plant after high school. He is confident that his employer won’t lay off workers or shut down the plant because it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Iowa and does specialized work that would be difficult to move. He hopes Trump can create more jobs like his across the country.”

My father in his last back yard

I immediately thought of my own Dad and his hopes for me when I was young. He never had any expectation that I would follow in his footsteps professionally. He urged me to go to college and worked very hard to pay for it. I was the first person among all my cousins to get a higher education. He could be a real pain in the ass sometimes, and there were always massive disagreements between us in regards to religion, but he always urged me to shoot for something greater in my life. In those days I wanted to be a writer, a dream that I have followed but that has never really led to a professional income. Never once did he defer me from that dream and ask me to do something else. He always accepted whatever I was doing to earn a living and never made a disparaging comment as to what I was doing. He died long before I really developed a profession in the true sense of the word, and I think that if he’s up there watching me from the Billy Collins glass bottom boat he’d feel paternal pride.

And now that I have outlived him and have wandered about the last few years after the death of my wife and the loss of my profession I think about him often. And while I have many regrets about our relationship (as many sons do about their father) the thing I most admire was his courage and determination to find his own way and not take any crap from The Man. If he was alive today he’d be insane with rage over the turn this country has taken and he would have read that same sentence I quoted above and uttered one of his most disparaging statements, one that he used often: “That man speaks in terms that even he can understand.”

Unlike my father, I certainly don’t mean to be judgmental about that hardworking man in Iowa. But

Dad in the Navy

his statement presents a clear delineation between comfort zones. And it also expresses a dangerous expectation in regards to his assumption that his place of work will never lay anyone off or remain in Iowa for the foreseeable future. If there is anything I have learned in the last few years it’s the simple fact that you can never take anything for granted and that all things are impermanent. There is no comfort zone that lasts through a lifetime. There never has been. The “way things used to be” have never been stable. When I look back on my own life I see currents of change and passages that I by no means controlled. Sometimes I drifted. Other times I managed to steer the craft of my life and happiness and reach a place where I could take the time to convince myself that I really had reached a goal. But in fact everything is an accident. We have influence on our own lives, but to think that we are really in control is an illusion. Snafu is the normal state of being.

Joseph Campbell used to tell a story of a Tiger who thought he was a Goat. My father never had the opportunity to live out his afternoon of life. My expectation was that I would, and that I would be sharing it with the partner I met 37 years ago. The former experience awaits me, the latter no longer is a possibility. My father was a tiger. I will follow in his footsteps on a path that he never walked.

Dad and Mom before I was born


Dad and Nikon in Yosemite.
I miss him.


My mother and I at a wedding reception.
I miss her.


The Voice of Thunder

In 1963 my father bought a black Dodge 330 with a V8 engine and a pushbutton transmission. It was a hideous looking thing, but it was the perfect car for long trips. For the next three years my brothers and I spent our summer vacations in the back seat of that car traveling through America. During the first trip we stayed in motels, then in 1964 my dad purchased a bounty of camping gear, including a huge 10’x10′ tent from Sears, and we slept in the National Parks of the Southwest and California. Ted William’s face was benevolently presented on all the camping and fishing gear produced by Sears in those days.
I spent hours staring at the landscape from the backseat of the car as the scenery passed. At times the land was endless and vacant and moved outside the window leisurely. But in the Midwest I witnessed real thunderstorms for the first time in my life. I had experienced the East Coast variety many times from the safety of the living room window, but they were nothing like the vast fronts of weather that ramble and rumble across the heart of the continent.
In the Plains you can see the thunderheads building up from miles away, towering far up into the sky like vast creatures of vapor. They move across the ground with deliberate purpose, grey rain descending beneath them as if they were squeezing power out of the clouds and saturating the land with it. Once, in Indiana, I popped out of the door of the motel room to watch the cascade of gushing rain and realized that the air was electric and that the hair was standing out on my forearms. The atmosphere was charged with something that was greater than mere weather. The electricity was crackling scant feet above my head and something immense was raging like a crazy beast.
What was that sound?
Throughout those trips I saw thunderheads in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, and Wyoming. The storms were ominous. The beaded silver line of road stretched ahead of us for hundreds of miles. Squalls rolled across the earth relentlessly while the brown and purple landscape stood underneath them willingly, receiving the full brunt of the storms. It is impossible to describe the broad attributes of the Great Plains. The sky there is a larger sky. It is a land fully impregnated with the grandeur and power of nature. Any living being moving on the surface of the landscape must move with respect and the certainty of its own smallness. There is nothing that one can do except to take shelter and watch in amazement as the storm passes. I would never want to be caught out in weather like that without a solid roof over my head.
At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, I heard the serious declarations of the storms. In August the weather arrived every afternoon. What had been a sky of fathomless blue became a turmoil of rain. The pitch of the thunder rolled sonorously through the Canyon, resonating for minutes on end, each clap hardly subsiding before the next one took its place. It was wondrous to sit in the enormous blue tent and play checkers with my brothers while the rain was beating on the canvas and the thunder roared as if it was never going to stop.
It was not until I grew up that I recognized that the voice of the thunder was a voice of divinity that had been speaking for many long years, and many lifetimes, and that it was a source of creativity and imagination. I’ve recently been thinking about the power of nature as the rain has been coming down in torrents in Northern California. We so easily overlook the weather. Because of the long drought I think we have gotten complacent, both as individuals and as a body politic. The current troubles up in Oroville reflect that. I admit to some smugness as well. This last weekend I travelled down to visit some old pals who live in Santa Cruz. I was planning to stay the entire President’s Day weekend, but headed home a day early because there was a strong chance that I would have been stuck down there when the most recent storm lashed the coast. Even though I know better and have memories of being trapped there in 1982 (which was the last time I can remember the winter weather being as intense as it has been this year) I was still taken by surprise by needing to head home. I managed to sneak away on Highway 17 before it was shut down again on Monday and spent the next 24 hours listening to the power of the rain and the wind lash my own backyard.
We take so much for granted in our lives. California, like all those states in the Plains, is really a wild place. Earthquakes, thunderstorms, snow, fog, coastal tides and tsunamis; all of that has always been here and for the last two hundred years or so clever human beings have devised ways to alleviate the effects of heavy weather. For several years we have been in severe drought and we had forgotten about all the dams, spillways, levees and bridges that are part of the infrastructure that we have developed to be able to live comfortably in an environment that will kill us if we forget how dominant it really is.
Our American Consciousness is fascinated by apocalyptic disaster. Years ago when I read Mike Davis’s book Ecology of Fear I recognized that fascination within myself. We can’t help ourselves really. When we see stories of floods and fire on the news it’s impossible to tear ourselves away from the information stream. Americans (and I am one of them) love a good disaster story, especially when it’s not happening to us. While we have grown more generous and compassionate about these things over the years, we always feel lucky when we personally have avoided catastrophe. Yet we always toy with the idea: what if it happened to me? What would I do? When we confront the insensible voices of the natural world we are reminded of our own mortality. If we are wise enough, we can see it doesn’t take much to snuff us out and that we should be careful, live joyfully and be grateful for the time we spend on this planet.
My greyhound, Finn, is much smarter than I am. Usually when I visit my friends in Santa Cruz and bring him along he settles down and sleeps for hours on end just as he does when we are at home. But on this visit he was underfoot and in the way, restless and a tad annoying. He was much relieved when he realized I was packing the car for an early return. He slept in the back of the car throughout the entire return journey, and when we got back he headed upstairs to his big fluffy bed and was out like a light for hours. He knew exactly what was going on, and that a big storm was coming. Like all domesticated animals, he lives on the edge of the Wild and knows that’s where he came from. It’s his origin. He has respect for it and no time at all for disaster movies and other fantastic entertainments.
“Yeah it’s a nice ocean. Now let’s go home.”


The Loudest Sound

Finn and I live in our own quiet world that is far removed from the insanity of a republic that is slowly and painfully disassembling all around us. At those times I imagine my home as a hut in a far off wood that I occupy like an elderly Zen monk. That monk is much calmer than I could ever be. And yet though he is just an imagined image he seems like something to emulate. Ryokan comes to mind:
My pal Finnegan
Keep your heart clear
And transparent,
And you will
Never be bound.
A single disturbed thought
Creates ten thousand distractions.
Perhaps that’s why the concept of returning to work in the sense of what it used to be is so daunting to me. The events that transpired in my life in 2014 and 2015 changed me so much that I am not sure I can fit in with that world. So much of what people get paid to do in my old line of work is unimportant to me now.
The Doctor\’s Angel, Evergreen Cemetery, Manchester CA.
I was thinking about that world as I was watching The Godfather last night. That film is all about power. But it is what the film doesn’t say about power that is the greatest lesson. All things have an illusory quality, but power is the greatest illusion of all. Even vaster than love in its most romantic attire. People strive for power as a tangible thing, and while its most obvious benefits are the things that all of us desire, (food, shelter, clothing, family) the corruption that is inherent in unrestrained power removes all the advantages and leaves nothing but emptiness in the soul of the power holder. Absolute power is impotent in the circumstance of the mortality of the person who pursues supremacy. Shelley wrote of it. That is the story of History.
I have been alive long enough now to see that so many fools rise and fall and leave destruction and litter in their wake that the work that the rest of us do to clean up after them is not only the most important labor but the only labor that matters—other than loving others and feeling compassion for them. There are far more fools than wise men and even a wise man has his foolish moments. I know that is true of me. Perhaps the greatest benefit of wisdom is knowing when you are a fool and picking up your own rubbish.
10 years old
For a long time I’ve been in denial of my own ageing. Whenever my old amigo John talked about “watching the falling leaves” as a metaphor I would say to myself that his comparison was an indulgence and in itself a defeat. I would say “not me, I’m not old yet”. But I can’t deny that anymore. I am old, or at least an elder. My own memories of childhood, as vital and clear as they are, seem like a well-thumbed book. The world that surrounded me when I was five or six does not exist anymore. Like the world that H.L. Mencken describes in Happy Days it exists in black and white, not color, like a TV show from a past that is mine in memory only. The places in which I dwelled still exist in reality: the homes in which I lived, the streets I walked or drove on, the schools I attended, all of those structures are still there (I can see them on Google Street View) but there are other people occupying them. My own memories of those places, while bright and clear in my mind\’s eye, are my own ghosts.
Yet I am still alive making new memories even though the world in which I live today no longer is my old world, and seems brittle and ready to collapse. Yet while it does my own hopes and passion compel me to stand in wonder at the great gift of my own life and the truth that no matter what has happened to me personally and no matter what happens to the commonwealth in which I live that I still have my own power, as simple as it is, to make my own existence a noble and fulfilling one.  Like Ryokan in the forest, and like my friend John, I watch the leaves falling all around me and yet can also see the fresh green buds of new life quietly appearing as an expression of impermanence. For it is the cycle, the yin to yang, birth to death, sadness to joy, ignorance to wisdom, health to sickness, success to failure, that is the core of all things. That is the Tao, though in speaking of it, it whispers, and in not speaking of it, it is the loudest sound of all.
Split Tree Trunk, Volunteer Park, Seattle WA,