Corrupt Tree

Purple-hand push-ups on a single-digit morning.
Behind crystal-glass doors, confined in cistern sockets,
Two eyes as blue as sky withdrawn from a dawn as red as apples
Before the weather turns and fruit turns rotten
And hangs without color on trees without shame.

The air in this room is cold and somehow stale
Like freezer-burnt butter bread. To breathe here
Elicits only sighs and bitter prayers
From a man who kneels to Time for time alone.
He is alone. It is not good.
His prayer, answered again, brings him no peace.

Hanging apples do not suffer from dread.
Their swallowed fate in the sweaty hands of a sweet-toothed people
Prone to overindulgence, negligence and mass genocide
Never gives them pause or cause for concern.
If eaten, an apple might give momentary pleasure.
If uneaten, the fruit will lose its sweetness and rot
And never taste its own death in the long age before it falls.

Winter has no power to freeze the soul.
Man chooses to rot or sweeten, to numb or feel.
Of the many ways to say it, the simplest is best:
The man chose the corrupt tree, and now hangs
On the far edge of the bare branch like a dead fruit.

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The Runner

I got into St. Augustine, Florida on Sunday night near sunset. I began biking in the Palo Alto area in California on October 29th. I cycled down the California coast and across Arizona and New Mexico. Then I took a train across Texas, took a week off the road staying with my cousins and aunt and uncle in Houston for Thanksgiving, and continued biking from East Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and 500 miles across the panhandle of Florida. During the whole thing I biked around 2,500 miles. This poem that I wrote back in July of 2016 is fitting for the end of such a trip.

The Runner

I close my eyes and listen for wordless answers to unanswerable questions.
But hear only the fan not making this room any less hot.
And feel only this hunger I don’t feel like satisfying.
Better to lie down hungry
and wake up full, by some gift,
than to lie down full and wake up hungry.
Better to feel the way I feel
than wish to feel some way I don’t.
I feel hungry, thirsty, physically sunburnt and spiritually fire-burnt.
It doesn’t matter how much I wish to feel
filled, quenched, serene, and free of pain—
it will not change the fact that I do not feel any of those ways.
I am as restless as a runner who spends his entire life
crisscrossing the country he was born in,
searching for the country he lived in before he was born,
never remaining in any town for longer than a night,
compelled to keep moving for reasons not even he can comprehend.
Oh, if only the runner didn’t feel so restless!
Then he could settle down and find contentment in one place.

No. Let me know this restlessness,
like the runner knows the difference
between running on the hard concrete in the middle of the country
and running on the soft sand, yards away from country’s end,
where shore meets sea, and what was once before
meets what now begins to be,
arriving there at the end of borders
only to turn and begin again.
Let me begin to accept my lack of acceptance.
Let me accept myself as I am, as much as I can,
accepting also my longing to be different from what I am.

I sit in the heat of this room,
feeling how far I am from that shore,
but also smiling just a little bit,
because I know how much I am like the runner
and will keep searching
until I find what he will find
when finally
he stops running.

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the soft sand of St. Augustine beach

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Pelican in Mobile Bay

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incredible warm showers hosts Oona and Zef in Monticello, Florida

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“Only one thing I did wrong / stayed in Mississippi a day too long.”

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Made it

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Colorado River crossing into Arizona

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Sunset on a dirt road in Arizona.

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Starting the trip

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Alligator with a wounded tail in the middle of the road in Lousiana

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sunrise at San Onefre state park

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Day 29: Reflection on Travel and Motivation, Comfort and Deprivation, Freedom and Frustration

The harshness and discomfort of the road should be softened by short periods of comfort. A single night of sleeping indoors on a pillowed bed, taking a shower with soap, eating a dinner of meat and vegetables rather than the usual rice and beans, drinking good filtered water, and fueling up with a large breakfast in the morning can do much to offset the anemic and ascetic weariness that comes from depriving oneself of those pleasures for weeks on end. All you need is one night to relax and not have to worry about getting what you need. Without this sporadic comfort, you begin to lose sight of your purposes for traveling, one of which was to recover your joy and wonder at life. You get tunnel vision. Before going out on the road, you had worked a menial job, lived a humdrum existence, read books of adventure in your spare time, and hungered for the excitement of travel, the inspiration you’d surely feel, the soulful people you’d meet along the way. Now you just want it to be over, get to the end, be where there is no more road. You hunger to sleep in a warm bed. The road becomes something to complete, the journey something to be finished and done with. The path in front of you something to put behind you.

Besides your thirst for indoor comforts, you want to get to the end partly because you think the end will mean no more feeling like an eternal beginner. To live on the road is to exist as an eternal beginner. The vagabond has no profession to master, no trade to become expert in, or at least pretend to be proficient at. In each new town he wakes up knowing he must start over again, learn anew how to be alive, find some way to make it to the next town. He cannot fall back on old ways. There is no falling back; there is only going forward.

But when the man on the road starts to get tunnel vision, this idea that “there is only going forward” becomes distorted. He goes forward not to grow and be shocked awake by the new but simply to get to the end where he can sleep in peace, where he does not have to work hard for every mile, where comfort is a given, though taken rather than received with gratitude, and does not need to come as some kind of reward. He has lost perspective; he has forgotten that one fully appreciates what one has only after being deprived of it. Compassion comes not through happiness but through sorrow. Connection with other human beings is deepest not through daily and habitual interaction but when it occurs unexpectedly after you have experienced the depths of loneliness and isolation. You take most pleasure in the sweet and simple things of life not when you feel no pain but when pain itself has made your heart soft enough to appreciate those moments when it is full.

The man goes out on the road because he imagines that travel will fill his heart. Then, once on the road, he feels his heart empty, and instead of experiencing this emptiness, he rejects it as not part of his plan and imagines a life off the road where his heart will be full. He feels on the road, more intensely than he ever felt off it, his isolation. People see him riding alone on the side of the highway and perhaps are reminded of their own isolation, which they had tried to repress. They honk or curse or make rude hand gestures. By his mere presence, he has dared to call into question the solidity of their illusions, the unsturdy foundations of their fragile lives, of the fragility of all human life. But the honker is the exception. Most people are easily able to see themselves in the voyager, the pilgrim forced by a heart made restless by the intensity of his longing, to live with no home, close to the edge of being and non-being. Instead of rejecting that what they see in this restless heart is their own restlessness, these people welcome the wanderer as they would their own son. Having experienced his isolation deeply, the traveler is all the more appreciative of this welcome.

Even so, the feeling of rejection that comes when a car honks, as you pedal at a snail’s pace for miles up a steep grade, is enough to cancel out ten occasions of welcome and support. Aliveness quickly becomes deadness, aloneness turns to loneliness, and what had seemed purposeful almost instantly seems purposeless. You wonder what in hell you are doing, where you are going, why you put up with the frustrations that are part and parcel of life lived out of doors. And yet the frustrations are bearable. You chose to experience them when you left the comfortable house, where your frustration stemmed from feeling confined and constricted. Everywhere you go you face frustration. Now, outside the house where there was too much peace, you are frustrated that you can’t find any peace at all, that you can’t seem to be happy even though you are free.

Dreaming of what life could be always makes life as it actually is feel drab, without color, uninspiring. My purpose for living life on the road is to understand, by actual experience, what life actually consists of, what my life means to me. Not what I wish life could be, but what it actually is. To understand who I am, I must  understand what life is. Just as I will never fully understand what life is, I will never fully understand who I am. To become whole is not to understand everything but to have the humility to admit that one does not and cannot understand all, to graciously come to terms with not being all-powerful, to rejoice at not being God.

I would rather be frustrated and free than frustrated and unfree. I would rather make the conscious choice to live on good terms with deprivation than take a lack of deprivation for granted. I must come to terms with all sides of myself. I am as much the cursing, pickup-truck-driving honker as I am the caring widow who shelters me for the night and cooks a hot meal for the two of us as the cold rain pours down on the roof. I am as much the hateful excluder as I am the peaceful protestor.

All that I experience must become my teacher. There will still be plenty of times that I don’t like what I’m experiencing and wish it could be different. I’m rather be warm than cold. I’d rather be connected than isolated. I’d rather be intimate with another than lonely. But on the road my resistance to what I experience does not have the same feeling of futile and hopeless rebellion. There is no sense of, “I should not be feeling this way.” The choice to go out on the road is the choice to put myself at the mercy of Life, and there is little point in resisting what Life gives me. When she opens her hand, why should I close my heart? When Life opens her hand, something new comes into the world, and I am on the road to come into contact with the new. Not only to come into contact with the new but to embrace it, to open my own hands in a posture of surrender and reconciliation and let Life put what she will into them, for embracing what Life places into my hands places me in the hand of Life, the only place where I will ever know what it means to be alive.

 

 

 

 

November 20, Day 23 on the Road: Riding a Train Across Texas

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On the train the beauty of the setting sun and the rising crescent moon, of the open fields and the pecan groves, of the swampy forests and the rolling hillsides, feels somehow less deserved. The train passes by the world outside the window; the world passes you by as a ballgame passes before the eyes of a spectator, or a spectre, half-seen but never wholly appreciated. The train moves as you sit still. It is harder to feel moved. In order to feel a part of life’s movement, it seems necessary to move oneself. You can pass over a river a thousand times, see it from out the window of your car or train twice each day on your way to and from work. The real work begins when you set your kayak in the water and begin to paddle.

On the bike, you move through the landscape. What you see and pass through does not remain out there; its beauty penetrates deeply. It comes to you and through you unobstructed. Nothing separates you from it. There is no need to interpret it to fit your previous worldview. You are in the landscape, a moving piece among moving pieces, moving towards wholeness amidst what is already whole, and your view of the world stands in front of you, uninfluenced from your past views of it. Yesterday has passed but did not pass you by. All was new then and all is new now.

On the train, you sit amidst the other sitters, onlookers, bypassers. Together you sit and watch the world pass by. People read, eat, drink coffee, chat, find some way to keep busy, keep from being bored. And yet boredom comes anyways, despite or because of our many attempts to avoid it. Boredom comes on the train just as restlessness comes off it, when you hear the train’s whistle, and feel as Steinbeck felt the desire to roam.

This desire to travel is different from the traveling itself. You desire the feeling that thinking of travel gives you; you do not desire the reality. Or, in a deeper place, reality is all you desire, but you cannot access that place in dreams. Only by experiencing what is real can you begin to understand your desire for what is real, and seek reality. So, because you cannot access what you truly desire, you dream. You dream of the feeling of awe that will overtake your soul when the lounge car in the train is empty before dawn and you are up, more awake than you’d dreamed you’d ever be, the train you are on rolling with speed over the Mississippi River, heading west. You dream of the woman who will enter the train just as you get up to leave, how you will remain instead, though you’ve passed what you’d planned to be your final destination, how in her presence you will lose all your fear of people, all your resistance to everything outside the self, how your heart will open up like the sky in the desert on the first monsoon of the season.

Your desire for the road is like an amnesiac, making you forget past experiences you’d labeled as negative, neglect the fact that those very same experiences are sure to return: the cold and lonely November nights, the constant consumption of cheap food that your body finally rejects, the repetitive movements of putting one foot in front of the another, or pushing down on the pedals for one more revolution, how the monotony finally becomes terrible.

Your dream of the road is not the road, for the road is reality and includes what you’d rather reject, and your dream is illusory and occludes all except what you readily accept and rejoice in. The road is about rejoicing in and welcoming what you previously rejected, ignored, and denied. If you denied your frailty and helplessness, be on the road long enough and you will be forced eventually to confront these aspects of yourself. You’ll run out of food miles from any town; you’ll drink some bad water and be sick for a week, unable to keep any food down. You will be helpless to cure yourself, too frail to move and too sick to enjoy your rest. You will need to have the patience to wait, weak and weary, to be healed. If you’ve denied your power and capability, you will have no choice but to remember that you are powerful, capable of biking over one hundred miles in a day with eighty pounds of food, water, clothes, and shelter on the back of your bike, supporting yourself and your journey, carrying everything you need by your own power. If you have denied the support of others, rejected the fact that you are at the mercy of the goodness of other people, you will be at the receiving end of gifts and have to make the choice between open-hearted gratitude or stomach-twisting guilt.

Your dream of yourself is not who you are. Just as the road is no comfortable bed to dream upon until night turns to dawn, the self is no comfortable cocoon that you settle into to dream of who you could be when some rare red dawn magically transforms you into your dreamed-of self. The night cometh without doubt, but now it is day, and there is time to live while there is still light, and to live means to exist outside the cocoon, not to dream of paradise but to live in reality. What is reality?

What is Truth? asked Pontius Pilate, before he washed his hands of the matter and watched Truth be crucified. I sit on this train across Texas and watch the world go by. There is no dirt under my fingernails. I got a hotel room last night in Deming, New Mexico, took a shower this morning. My hands are clean.

I sit on the train and watch the sun go down. Distant shades of fire. I feel like I am, a spectator rather than a participant. Not in the fire. Detached, separate. The window is in the way. But I hear the train horn and feel the tingling run through my body. My restless blood, coming alive. I’m exhausted, strung out from three weeks on the road, in which I’ve biked close to 1,500 miles. Half the length of the country. So why do I still feel as if I do not deserve this beauty, this sky full of fire? As if anyone could earn such a free gift. What is given must simply be received.

I want to look out the window at this sunset and at the same time feel the same fierce burning in my heart. “Look at the sunset,” a woman behind me tells her companion. “Look how pretty it is.” Her companion looks and agrees. We are spectators on the train; we look and agree. The sky is pretty. And then we go right on complaining about how no one understands us, no one listens, no one cares. No one, I trust, cares less than the sun, which shares itself so freely, is as beautiful going down as it is coming up. May my life, the ending of which is so final, so definite, so unalterable, be an altar where I kneel down to the rising sun and offer my daily bread of beginnings.

Begin, begin, begin again. Rise in the morning and ride until I find a purpose to my riding. Aim until then only to enjoy my aimlessness. Let the simplicity of life on the road settle deeply into my unsettled blood. Let what I am become clear, or remain a mystery. Let what is meant to be come to be. May it bring me joy, or may it bring me sorrow. May I feel it, what is and what will come to be, as deeply and completely as possible. May reality itself make me real, myself, the person I am meant to be. I seek an unshakable faith, not in myself but in the ground I walk upon. I seek to walk upon this ground, to stand and to walk, trusting that every fall will be followed by a rise, every barren winter by a remarkable spring.

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November 17, Day 20 on the Road: Waking Up to Raccoons at Midnight in Eastern Arizona

 

 

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It’s 4 a.m., and I’m in the bathroom of Roper Lake State Park, outside of Stafford in eastern Arizona, sheltered from the cool desert night, taking what little comfort is available from the lukewarm showers here. I’ve got a cup of hot coffee beside me, in the same stainless steel cup I had at Legacy. I was a client there from February to June of 2016. Next week it will be Thanksgiving 2017, eighteen months later. I couldn’t sleep, raccoons kept coming into my campsite, trying to get at the food in my panniers. I’ve been on a bike tour for the last two and a half weeks. I’m living the adventurous life that legacy helped inspire me to live, but it’s not all warm showers and hot coffee.

It’s a long, slow road I’m on, one that often gets lonely. Slow and steady wins the race, I told myself as I pedaled two days ago up route 77, seven miles up 3,000 feet of elevation with 100 pounds on the back of my bike. What race? What victory? It’s hard not to feel deflated and defeated, to feel like a failure in life, to wonder about the futility of your own individual existence, when you wake up at midnight after three hours of sleep to the sound of raccoons scavenging through your food, and you spend ten minutes yelling yourself hoarse at said raccoons, which seem to be totally unafraid and go right on gnawing at the bag of instant rice you neglected to put away, thinking not even the coons would go for that, and now four hours later after being unable to fall back asleep, you take solace in the State Park bathroom, take a lukewarm and soap-less shower, and dry your hair under the hand drying machine, dreaming of sinking deeply into a plush comfy chair beside a wood stove fire and next to a bookshelf with hundreds of books, sipping hot tea and reading of some faraway arctic adventure as you sit in your comfortable home by the blazing fire with your steady, well-paying job and your loving and lovely wife and your sweet and adorable children. Instead, you are alone, a twenty-six year old man without a steady occupation, without a significant other, without a significant sense of your own self, leading a roving existence on the road to nowhere.

But no, every road leads somewhere. The dead end road leads to the wilderness that is the beginning of life. I’m on the road, craving this morning before dawn no longer for the temporary warmth of alcohol, my old and unforgiving mistress, but for the more permanent warmth and comfort of some place I can call my own, that I can call home. I say more permanent, for of course nothing is completely permanent. I’m on the road to recovery, and this road doesn’t end. It’s the road to rest and serenity, the road home. Home must be earned. Recovery is the victory that makes sense of this gnawing sense of defeat. Feeling like a failure precedes the success that comes when you recognize that to fail does not mean to die. You fail, and yet you live. One breath feels like a miracle, the next like your last gasp. And yet you live, and you fail, and you continue down the road.

For the last few nights, no matter how long or far I’ve pedaled, I haven’t slept well. I can’t find rest. I keep waking up, many times each night, wanting the sun to be up, wanting to be on my way. I’ve been averaging around 70 miles a day, between six and seven hours on the bike, at least a couple thousand feet of climbing, and yet I cannot sleep more than five hours a night.

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” wrote Saint Augustine. Indeed. Rest in whom? “Via con dios,” said a Mexican-American from Stockton, California who I met at the Bylas rest area on the Apache reservation. Go with God. “You’ve got angels behind you on both shoulders,” he told me. In a couple hours, light will come, and I will go. With the wind at my back or in my face, with angels on my two shoulders or alone and feeling like the most forlorn wanderer east of the Colorado and west of the Mississippi. I’ll get on my bike and go east towards the New Mexican border. My plan is to go east until I smell that salty sea water again, in the swamps of Florida. And then what? I started this trip a few miles inland from the Pacific, biked seven miles and close to 3,000 feet up route 9, and then down again back to sea level into Santa Cruz. From there I biked down the coast of California, riding through the strawberry country between Santa Cruz and Monterey, climbing high above the cliffs of Big Sur, riding under the palm trees along the sunny coast in Santa Barbara and L.A, and pedaling down past San Diego until I was a few miles away from Mexico. I decided against crossing the border and went east instead, climbing out of the San Diego area, away from the sea, up to around 4,000 feet, and then plummeting back down into the low Sonoran desert, riding beside seguaro cacti, feeling the desert sun hot on my back. From the low desert I climbed again to the high desert, and I’ll do some more climbing once I get into New Mexico. Then I’ll have the confront the gigantic mass of land that is Texas.

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There is much more country to see. I love the southwest, but for now I’m heading east, with all I need on the back of my bike. I may want more than I have, may crave all I don’t have, but in truth I lack nothing. Save the truth that will set me free? No, that is there too. That is here, too, and I’m on the road to find it.

“I think whoever I see must be happy,” writes Walt Whitman in Song of the Open Road. May I sing my song as I ride the open road. May I smell the happiness of juniper trees. May I take hold of this life and make it mine. My road, my life, my heart. I must find my heart, find where it sings and soars, where it weeps and groans, before I can give my heart away. I moan for man like Jack Kerouac. I weep for beauty like Everett Ruess. I’m clean and sober and learning to sing like the wind that brings me home, and I’m riding, yes I’m rolling, on down the open road.

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Dark Morning

Dark morning, do what you will do.
Grow light without resistance.
Spread your light to the resistant world.
But too much light too soon might blind me.
First, let my own resistance rest
in you dark hour I rest within.

No one murmurs except crickets,
no one moans for the pleasures of the past,
no one dreads the pain of the future,
for no one is here to moan or dread.
Nothing here but the dark hour.
Not a soul awake that knows my name.

Dark morning, you do what you do
not for me or anyone else,
not to be praised or celebrated.
We should all be so bold
to work in such obscurity,
to toil before the sun
and rest by light of day,
returning alone at dusk
to the desk we left at dawn
so the light within can grow
in the growing darkness without.

Moon Talk

I.

Meaning no longer carries me like a cresting wave
onto sands silvered by an uneaten moon.
So instead of seeking out the precious meaning
that’s left me in the shadow of half-eaten lunacy
I take a bite out of an apple. I will eat fruit to cope
with the fact that my moon has been eaten.
The grape will be my purple moon, the orange
my sunned moon, and the tomato my blood moon.
Outside, July, middle of summer, who is a pale girl
the rich girls in their animal skin coats make fun of.
Winter is a frail boy who dies of pneumonia.
Summer and winter decided not to make love
and since the moon had already been eaten
they realized they had nothing to talk about.
How much like you and I. I wish my long black coat
didn’t remind me of Death, that snapping turtle
whose shell I am. When you peel the shell off me…
but don’t remind me of that, or I might just snap.
Each day I get more used to silence. I tell myself
the silence prepares me to die. Others tell me I’m only
twenty-five. Who is right? Only the one who admits
he never is. I admit: my life is not worth the absence
of wind or God. Some days are finished for me by 9 a.m.,
and as I lie back down in bed I watch the commuters,
all of them working to earn their keep, make their way,
prove themselves worthy of being alive, in vain;
the moment we were made we were made worthy
of being kept alive and well and whole.
How can we prove what we already are? I am filled
with holes: who of you will have me? I am whole,
there is not a hole in me: who will reject me?
Goddess of night, before you nix me, rejecting
my too-sunny view on life, save me from these books
on this desk that even now rebuke my uselessness.
Double-blind me, so I might forget what I have not done.
I am compelled again to finger the books’ straight spines.
My own spine is bent-over, bony and ornery.
I have trouble believing the evidence of my senses:
that the people still speak, even to my muteness;
that the birds still sing, even to my deafness;
that the sun still shines, even on my blindness.

Stray Cat

I search for the sun in the cave
and the moon on the sand

and only the stray cat
will lead me to heaven.

My path is to follow the stray.
I’ve strayed from the path, I’d say.

I’ve drifted from my vocation,
said the drifter.

I live too much like a fat cat
too comfortable to wander.

Come, wanderer: hand over this over-fullness
to the empty space

that still calls you
to live with silence, and not by name.

Crickets at Midnight

I want to write something tonight
that will be remembered.
I don’t want to be forgotten.
I don’t want to forget
what crickets sound like

in the Virginia summer.
I do want to stop wishing
I had someone to hold tonight,
but my body doesn’t care
what I want or don’t want.

I hear the crickets.
You know what they sound like.
Do I need to tell you everything?
No. I want to tell you one thing
and then fall into a dreamless sleep.

I want to speak the truth of my heart,
but don’t you dare tell me to speak.
I don’t make it a habit to be told things.
I let the crickets speak for me.
They do a good job.

I’m up past my bedtime
but not ready to sleep yet.
I’m not ready to die either.
Death doesn’t care
if I speak the truth of my heart

or if I never speak again.
And life? Life speaks for itself.
I’ll speak for this self, alone
in this dark room, listening.
I don’t feel the presence of God.

I’m not thinking of anyone
I once knew nor of those
I’ll know in the future.
I’m here. Of course, I want more
than what is here, so I suffer.

I don’t want to be forgotten, and so
I suffer more. But I won’t forget
what’s here: the crickets here
that I hear from outside the window.
And there is no one who can tell me—

tell this small, suffering, forgettable self—
that hearing this music on a July night
does not make me proud
to be an ear, and glad
to be alive.

No Wind

I broke into my own home
and found it empty.
I abandoned my home
and never found the way back.

I am a captive of my own need
to capture the moment.
I am a slave of my own desire
to be free.

Truth cannot be commanded.
Love cannot be won.
Peace cannot be earned.
Goodness cannot be achieved.

My lack of aliveness
would terrify me
if I were alive enough
to feel terrified.

I’d rather not be here
with what else is here
but what else is there
but what is right here?

It’s hard to love
and it’s hard to live
and it’s hard to write
without loving or living.

I want to own a Russian cat
and read Dostoyevsky
by a fire in the winter
in the woods of Arizona.

I want to speak
a word
for speaking
no words.

I am most real
when I confess
that I don’t know
what it means to be real.

It is evening now.
The dogs have stopped barking.
The rain has stopped falling.
There is no wind.