On the heels of cancer and chemotherapy, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago. I suspect the cancer/chemo was a cause, but I don’t know. But this disease remains more a shadow on my future than an interference with my life today, except for a mild tremor and a muddling of my mental machinations. I enrolled in an exercise class for Parkinson’s patients and discovered what my future held in store for me: brave people who struggled to speak, who struggled to walk, one who fell and broke her leg, another who fell down a flight of stairs, one who took a trip and returned not the same person, as if the trip had taken all his remaining energy and life force. All of them struggling to put one foot in front of the other, keep their posture straight, their head and shoulders back, a constant forced cheerfulness in their faces as they cheered each other on. After a few months of working with them, I realized my Parkinson’s was not advanced very far compared to theirs and I did not need this exercise class yet. My Parkinson’s had not progressed far enough to make it helpful. Instead, I go to the gym three to four days with Gail. I am immensely grateful for this current span of living in which the disease leaves me alone and remains like a shark circling in the distance.
My second gratitude is intrinsically related to my first gratitude. During the eighteen weeks of chemotherapy, I didn’t know if I would live or die and I felt myself retreat into my private world of dealing with the unknown with denials and fear and depression. I am immensely grateful to my wife of thirty years, poet Gail Rudd Entrekin, who, during the worst part of my chemotherapy, crawled into bed with me in the hospital–to the astonishment of the staff and other patients–and helped me watch the drip, drip, drip of the poison going into my body. Because I had a bad reaction to the drug, the process required eight hours each time. For three years afterwards, Gail was caregiver, constant companion, helpmate, closest friend, devoted lover, and loving wife. In many ways, my cancer was rougher on Gail than it was on me. As someone has said, it is harder to care for someone you love who is suffering than to be the one that is suffering and being cared for. We were able to capture some of the struggle and transformation that occurred in poetry. Gail and I recently completed a book of poems The Art of Healing that reflects our two journeys, as caregiver and survivor, from diagnosis to treatment to healing, and the coming to terms with what remains, what it means to be alive and part of a larger web of being.
It has been six years since I was operated on for large B cell lymphoma and I survived that cancer. I am grateful to Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, a brilliant oncologist with the University of California, San Francisco, for his efforts in keeping me alive. I underwent surgery for a massive tumor in my chest and intense chemotherapy. I still have CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) but it is in remission and I am currently cancer free. In fact, although it has taken the full six years to get where I am now, cancer feels far away and not anywhere involved in the “now” of my life. Before cancer, I had pursued careers in teaching at every level, including college level, and started a creative writing department at John F. Kennedy University. That was before I decided that I needed more money than a teaching profession would provide and changed course into a career path of computer technologies and entrepreneurism. But I still kept writing, and finished a novel, too. I was engaged in promoting my book and was chairman of the board of a computer software company. When cancer struck, all of that life disappeared. I had a really busy life at that point that was dramatically altered by cancer. I did not know what the future held. But my life was saved.
From now to Thanksgiving this year I am going to post a series of seven gratitudes because I am trying to come to some kind of clarity about this particular span of my life in which, in fact, everything is okay. Everything is good. I’m healthy and happy and I am able to enjoy the amazing good fortune of my life. I have been reading about people who have suffered from blindness—Homer, John Milton, Jorge Luis Borges, Galileo Galiliei—and the different responses they made in dealing with their affliction. They were all amazing people and how they dealt with their problems has been inspiring and instructive, Borges in particular. One thing I took away from his essay, “Blindness,” I want to relate here because it is particularly relevant to my gratitudes.
Referring to Rudolf Steiner, Borges relates in his essay, “He said that when something ends, we must think that something begins. His advice is salutary, but the execution is difficult, because we only know what we have lost, not what we will gain. We have a very precise image—an image at times shameless—of what we have lost, but we are ignorant of what may follow or replace it.”
After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security.
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.
So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong
And you really do have worth…
And you learn and learn…
With every goodbye you learn.
Recently, I was asked by my brother why I was interested in Buddhism. After stumbling around for a while, I decided I needed to come up with an “elevator speech” explaining my interest. Actually, I have come up with two: one for the first floor and one for the fifth floor.
First floor elevator speech: Buddhism is a way of letting go of my attachment to the self I used to be.
Fifth floor elevator speech: Buddhism is about ending suffering and finding peace. I have recently learned from Buddhism that concerning oneself with the past leads to depression and that worrying about the future leads to anxiety. In fact, I am in good health, sleep well, and enjoying life to the fullest. I am living in, what Buddhism refers to as, “being here now.” I am no longer the person I once was. I have suffered terrific losses, but I have also come to an understanding that much of what I thought of as my “life story” was illusory. I am not any one thing or any one story. I am not my past. I am not my future. I am alive in the present moment and that brings me peace.
This was a poem published in San Diego Poetry Annual 2014-15, a tribute to my second (ex)wife, who passed away last year after a long bout with cancer. After watching the docudrama, Mr. Turner (an exploration of the last quarter century of the life of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner), I have been thinking about what it means to be an artist and about the business of art and the human ways of seeing the world. Maggie, like Turner, had the drive to create and was unimpressed with what the human world had to say about her (though, like Turner’s, her work was well-received). She painted what she saw. Her irrepressible spirit enabled her, through her painting, to rise above a difficult childhood, and in the end made her into a talented painter of high integrity.
Portrait of an Artist
for Maggie (1945-2014)
In grade school she won every race
and never faced the boys
who laughed. Embarrassed,
harassed she taped her breasts flat,
didn’t want to be a girl,
just wanted to run
and never look back.
Her father alone
in a Palo Alto bar,
her mother at home,
silent in failure with
vodka, tonic, and cigarettes.
Left with her paints
she changed her life
with color, particularly blue.
She painted their new TV blue,
then to her dad’s dismay,
painted his new car blue too.
Too blue, too blue,
all the car’s mahogany,
Twenty-two, in art school,
her parents divorced,
she set a new course,
left the boyfriend who beat her up
and moved in with me.
Pregnant, she decided life was big,
bigger than her best expectations.
Then every small thing became big.
She painted big, she painted
a giant orange pig,
hung it over our living room couch.
After the baby
she started to drink,
had the affair,
stopped getting out of bed,
painted our living room
After work one evening I found her
sipping, tipsy, sorry
watching bright blue morning glories
close up for the night.
But how I like to think of her
is sitting before her canvas
white shirt, face, hands
all covered with paint,
fighting herself to create:
a woman on the beach,
flat white space for a face,
a woman in a wild field of foxtails,
straining to face backwards,
a woman with long tubular arms,
blue business suit, no hands,
a woman, sideways, huge with child,
in a blue bathing suit, trying to stand
without any feet.
Not too long ago, I posted a poem called “Esse Est Percipi” in this blog (It’s on the “Poems” page and a piece of the post “Thanksgiving Thoughts”). It is a poem about how I am coping with my vision loss. It turns out that it is really about how my brain is coping with vision loss. Just yesterday, I learned that what I am experiencing happens to about one-third of patients losing their vision. It is called Charles Bonnet Syndrome. A precursor to Darwin, Bonnet was an 18th century philosopher/naturalist who diagnosed the condition in his own grandfather. Below is what I discovered in an article by Alan Wells at damninteresting.com about CBS. It is a fascinating “phantom limb”-like response to vision loss:
“Consider that each human eye normally receives data at a rate of about 8.75 megabits per second, a bandwidth which is significantly greater than most high-speed Internet connections. The visual cortex is the most massive system in the human brain, and it is packed with pathways which manipulate the rush of visual data before handing it over to the conscious mind. When disease begins to kink this firehose of information, a legion of neurons are left standing idle.”
Which means the brain compensates for the lack of visual data by creating it—a visual hallucination that appears very real but that I consciously know is not there. As you can see from my poem, “I am trying to make friends with what I see.” I also just learned that the course of Charles Bonnet Syndrome is between twelve and eighteen months. What started out as nausea and disorientation began to be less alarming and (occasionally) be amusing. It feels like my brain has gone too far and is providing illusions that flow through me in a dream-like sequence, sometimes common, sometimes comforting, sometimes still a little alarming. It has become experiential and now it may, just as quickly, be gone.
How much, I wonder, does the brain normally supply that is not part of what is objectively perceived? I read, in my research, that the brain fills in the blind spot of the optic nerve. How much more does it create?
“Human perception is patently imperfect, so even a normal brain must fabricate a fair amount of data to provide a complete sense of our surroundings. We humans are lucky that we have these fancy brains to chew up the fibrous chunks of reality and regurgitate it into a nice, mushy paste which our conscious minds can digest. But whenever one of us notices something that doesn’t exist, or fails to notice something that does exist, our personal version of the world is nudged a little bit further from reality. It makes one wonder how much of reality we all have in common, and how much is all in our minds.”
Which raises a more interesting question about consciousness and bias and the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
In a way, we poets are our own audience. From Birmingham to Berkeley to Burma we discover one another, a common ground established between the pages of our books or online presence, a sharing that goes beyond the language of understanding of one another. For me, poetry is closer to the sense of smell than it is to the art of discourse. It is more a way of feeling with someone than talking to someone; a way of reclaiming a shared inner sense of the world.
It works like this: poetry is a kind of thinking that gets where it wants to go only by heading in the opposite direction. For example, by concentrating on not telling the truth. The reason there is nothing as useless as yesterday’s news is that it has successfully fulfilled its function. The news, once told, is no longer. For me, even as I am the poet writing my own poem, if I understand it too soon, I ruin it for myself. Poetry succeeds by putting on a mask in order to see itself, by glancing sidelong, by sneaking up on the subject matter, by surprise, by music, by sleight of hand, by illusion, by verbal magic!
For the writer as well as the reader, poetry operates through:
- A state of suspended cynicism.
- An unsystematic derangement of the senses.
- A willingness to see parts as wholes.
- To invest oneself in pieces of things, or places, or people, and to raise that investment to the level of vision, of how it might be seen, a personal vision.
The Art of Poetry
Once more, buddy, your last ride
has left you behind and nothing can be done.
You want someone to come, a silver angel,
to seize your hair and lift you from the earth.
But the weight of your two feet
presses against the ground. No one comes
to save you. It’s too cold to stand still
and too dark to run.
Once more, buddy, you write
to save yourself. Here’s the barn.
Here the horses are warm. Here, on a dark
night, between towns, between meals,
simply the heat of other animals is enough.
- Avoid linear, sentence syntax. Shift frame of reference whenever possible. Try to create the illusion of seeing things from many angles at once, in a compressed time and space.
- Alliterate as a response to the absence of run-ons, then use run-ons.
- Work images into the poem as though they were part of an apparently flat statement. Make the image work as a surprise:
the way time sits in your mouth
like cold sunshine and doors
wink open around you.
- Use concealed rhymes, rhyming end words in the middle of the next line, asynchronous rhymes. Use the anticipated and unexpected rhyme. Make it accountable to the ear, not the rhyme.
- Maintain an honest narrative thread that is resolved somewhere in the poem. There should always be something at stake in the poem that is resolved by the end. There should occur a feeling of something completed by the end of the poem, of closure.
- Never worry about what’s being said until after it’s been said. As Richard Hugo once said, “Those who worry about morality probably ought to.”
Everyone is an artist, he said,
inside. Inside there is someone
very, very old, someone only
an ancestor would recognize,
someone sheltered in a doorway
singing songs in a dew dropping cold,
singing songs we always seem to know
as if we’d heard the words long, long ago.
should be built to let in light
yet not destroy what’s inside them.
Gail and I were invited to attend an elder circle in Bolinas, California. The agenda was open—we could talk about anything that came to mind. We thought it was a gathering of people in their 60s and 70s and the discussions were going to range from end-of-life issues to what was going on in the current culture. We drove down with two friends—Bing and Eleanor from Point Reyes—to Bolinas, to a ranch we understood was dedicated to fostering new ways of living, farming, and community outreach. We arrived at the tail-end of a two-or three-day conference. The conference was for young people to discuss land use, urban issues, and community organizing. There were chairs arranged in a circle around a large fire pit that was already going nicely in the gathering dusk, the smell of the salt-sea air surrounding us, and owls hooting nearby. A young fox wandered over, intrigued at the circle of us, and then wandered on by. We all looked over at him and he looked at us and then he passed on.
We began by going around the circle to introduce ourselves and share statements of gratitude. James, the leader of the group, made it clear that everybody’s opinions were important and everybody’s thoughts were welcome and he invited everyone to participate. Just then, the youth organizational meeting finished its last session and they joined us around the fire. And before anybody else could speak, one of the younger members from that group shared his statement of gratitude. The smoke from the fire swirled and washed over us as he began talking, as dusk slowly sifted its way towards darkness. He said his name was Daniel. Daniel had a friend—whose name was also Daniel—that he had met in Costa Rica at another youth organizational meeting. And he had just heard recently that his friend Daniel had killed himself. For his turn, he said he was grateful for his friend, grateful for having known him. They were both activists trying to combat climate change, trying to organize people to bring awareness to the youth of the world about the issues and dangers of climate change. He said that it’s really difficult to be a young person in today’s world because it feels as if there is no future, there is no way or path forward, all of our avenues are blocked. It is very, very difficult to be young in today’s world, he repeated. He paused and looked down and everybody went silent waiting for him to continue.
He took a deep breath and looked back up around the circle. “My question to the elder group is: what advice do you have to give to us, to those of us who are wanting to help make the necessary changes for a better world, but feel hopeless about how to go forward?”
It seemed as if he was looking at each one of us individually. We all studied him in return, sitting a little dejectedly in the circle, holding his hands in his lap. Daniel’s question hung in the air. The fire crackled in the long silence. Everybody digested Daniel’s concern in his or her own thoughts.
After a long pause, James spoke up conversationally. “You know, I’m just an old dude. I can only tell you what this old dude thinks. I’m over 70 and I’ll tell you what I have learned about the future. The truth from my point of view is: I don’t know any answers. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know any answers for any of our problems. It’s important to me to say this out loud: I don’t know and I don’t believe anybody else knows. We are making it up as we go along. We all are living in a dream that we confuse with some hard and fast reality, but making it up gives us an advantage. Once you realize that everybody is making it up, that we are all living in a dream, you now have the power (since you are making it up) to reframe the issues, so that future doesn’t begin and end with fear. Our culture is driven by fear-mongering, fear mongers, people who want you to be afraid. They want you to fear what’s coming—whether it’s assassins or terrorism or even just political disagreements—everybody’s just making it up. It’s a propaganda issue. It’s an advertising issue. It’s a political issue. When people are afraid, they are easier motivate and to control. This is just the opinion of one old dude telling you that. But by realizing that we can choose to make up this dream of reality to suit our own needs, all of us, we can reframe it so that there is a way to understand future choices with compassion and love. There is a way to see it differently than the way the media would have us see it. We are all one. We are all part of this Earth. We are all one nation. We are all facing it, the life on this planet. This planet is our home. This place is what we are made of. We are part of it. We fit into an ecosystem. What we need to learn to do, with love and compassion, is learn to live within the ecosystem that we have found ourselves in and make something of it that’s worth having. We can join together, all of us, recognizing we are all one generation. We can go forward because there is strength knowing all of us can literally lean on each other. We are one nation, we are one species, we are one life form living with other life forms. We are all in this together.”
“There was a time,” he said, “when I was an infant, when there were only two or three billion of us on the planet. Now we are seven billion and growing. We need to learn to adjust to what’s out there, what we have in store. The key here is to know that we don’t know. No one knows. We can reframe the issue. We can build an understanding, from the bottom up, through the power of this one generation, this last generation. Regardless of how old you are, how old we are, we are in this together and we have the power. We have the power to see for ourselves how to live and how not to be afraid and how not to fear what we have in store. We have to learn to share with each other the eco-space that we have, that has been given to us.”
In response to James’s soliloquy about the thoughts of “one old dude,” Daniel said it occurred to him that, had his friend Daniel been able to find elder group to turn to, he might have found a way to live and not to die.
The smoke from the fire drifted over the circle and it occurred to me what a valuable time this has been, this simple gathering of elders and young people sitting in a circle, talking to each other, really talking to each other, and how valuable such a thing can be.
It’s important to reiterate that the key to understanding how to reframe an issue comes from the strength of knowing that we don’t know the answer. As we old dudes say, “No one knows.” The future is undetermined. Once we realize that, if we could join together and dream together with warmth and compassion, we can reframe the issues that determine the future. We can recognize what’s happening to the planet. We can go forward with an understanding of what can be done in our lifetime and how to take a stand to make a difference. Another note to take into consideration: this was just one element of the elder circle gathering. There were many ranging discussions: sustain-ably growing your own food while living in an urban environment; conservation; how to support a community that gathers strength organizing itself, empowering individuals to take charge of their lives. Rather than becoming victims of a society that is currently trying to rule by fear, we can avoid these outcomes by recognizing what we can do as people who gather their power from each other.
- Why I write: I write to discover myself. Who I am. That irreducible sense of myself that follows me wherever I go. When one is called upon to find something that expresses a reality beyond the pedestrian. I write to discover realities by opening myself and becoming willing to take away the censor that controls what can be said and what can’t be said.
- Why I read: I read poetry to enter into an intimate conversation with a fellow human being who has worked with the craft of poetry and is willing to try and perfect a linguistic structure that allows us to enter into his/her shared reality. An example of what I’m talking about is this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Spring and Fall
To a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
- What does William Carlos Williams mean by the quote, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack of what is found there?” Richard Hugo once told me, “You don’t have to know what a poem means, all you have to know is that poet knows what it means and that his meaning is a shared experience.”
- It strikes me that what Williams means is something similar to what Hugo is talking about—this shared experience that can be captured with words. In Galway Kinnell’s obituary, it is stated thusly: “Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness. ‘To me,’ he said, ‘poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.’”
- Adyashanti, a Buddhist monk, recently expressed the opinion that poetry attempts to articulate the irreducible quality of things. The thing is just the thing, not in anything said about it. There are no things. Everything is a process. Words can both reveal and conceal. Whenever you call it one thing, you’ve eliminated other things. Don’t walk in someone’s mind with dirty feet. The thing you take away from a poem did not come from the words themselves.