Three Days That Shook the Blogging World

It took me at least until Friday to fully absorb the impact of Bush’s “win” on Tuesday, and I was hardly alone. I’ll leave it to others to compile links from the better-known, political portion of the blogosphere. Bloggers of a cultural, spiritual and literary bent have reacted to last week’s election with no less passion. And I think it’s of vital importance that we not leave politics to the political. The price of distancing ourselves from politics and politicians cannot fail to be, as it has always been, an endless procession of snake-oil salesmen and psychopaths occupying the halls of power.

If we want a government that is truly “of the people,” we have to start acting as if we ARE the government. This would mean a huge sea change in our thinking, away from fear and paranoia and toward – yes – faith and values. It would mean engaging in honest and open dialogue with our friends and neighbors about our authentic hopes, dreams and fears – as opposed to the wet-dreams of money, power and alienated so-called freedom peddled by those who seek to keep us forever divided and thus easy to rule. It would mean taking responsibility for our own and each other’s well being. It would mean, above all, slowing down and re-learning how to live.

I don’t want to limit myself to links alone here, because how many people would take the time to click on them all? But by settling for longish quotes, obviously I won’t be able to include more than a small fraction of what’s out there. Please feel free to e-mail me (bontasaurus at yahoo) with suggestions of possible additions to this anthology. And please keep in mind that these quotes, suggestive as they are, represent in most cases just one facet of one argument selected from among several related posts, and that many are followed (and some prompted) by readers’ comments fully as interesting.

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Looking at today’s front page, I was drawn into an AP photo of a young campaign volunteer sitting, head in hands, on the steps of a rally stage in Des Moines, an “Iowans for Kerry” sign hanging behind her dejected form. She’s not from Keene, this Iowan campaign worker, but in my imagination she could be, an idealistic co-ed in faded, fringe-tattered jeans, sneakers, and a white linen jacket, a curious mix of little-girl dreams and grown-up disillusions. “Nervous Wait,” the caption reads: there’s an entire story in those two words, isn’t there? All that picture and all that caption needs is a storyteller, even a Fucked Up one, to step out of the shadows and get her hands moving. The first 5,000-some words might have been Total Bullshit, but the beauty of writing lies in the next line, the next word, where there’s always a chance to change and start entirely anew.

Hoarded Ordinaries

My America is liberal, tolerant, interested in globalism; in my America religion is post-triumphalist and universalist and coexists happily with science; in my America all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are entitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship, marriage among them. But my America is a marginal America, and the bulk of the nation feels differently. The chasm which divides us is deep and I don’t know how, or whether, it can be bridged.

I’m giving myself the day to grieve, and I’ve been moving steadily through those five stages everybody talks about. I know that despair is neither responsible nor tenable longterm; action and faith are called-for. I hope that by tomorrow, or by next week, I’ll be able to take a deep breath, look at the situation clearly, and figure out what I can do and which stone most needs my shoulder.

Velveteen Rabbi

It’s tempting to indulge in unconstructive name-calling. Lord knows I’ve done far more than my share. But it is statistically rather unlikely that half the electorate in the US is composed of either the feebleminded or sociopaths. There are millions of good, honest, sincere people in the US who voted for Bush because as far as they could tell, he best reflected their beliefs about right and wrong.

At least a few of these people will have their worldviews shattered due to the actions of the man they voted for in the next four years. They will need us. If there is an opposition to articulate a cogent, humane alternative to the lying and looting that will characterize official US policy for at least the next four years, the screwed-over will have a constructive place to channel their outrage.

Creek Running North

There are nice things about this little historical moment, this pause between disasters. On the residential streets of the Castro, strangers usually don’t greet each other, often avert eyes. This is partly an aspect of “cruising” behavior, partly an adaptation by ordinary residents to other people “cruising;” I’ve accepted that it’s not a rude habit, just a big-city inevitability.

But last night, everyone I passed gave a nod. In a subculture often defined by posturing and distancing, everyone was allowed to be lonely, frightened even, just for one night …

Creature of the Shade

Thursday, November 4

I don’t accept a lot of how this looks. It is true that many people in this country voted for Bush. It is true that when you look at the big red states and surrounding clusters of blue we look like a country full of dopes in the middle and the south. But I think that’s too simple. If you look at the numbers on a state by state basis the numbers are close. I don’t accept the idea of a conservative mandate.

There is no doubt that the next four years will be difficult. There is no doubt that this dubious notion of morality exists and that there is a vigourous conservative Christian coalition. But I want to keep resisting ideas that divide things into simple and alienated terms. And I don’t want to be in such a hurry to feel better.

I found myself working pretty hard to keep my emotions from becoming overwhelming all day yesterday. I am too often overwhelmed by my emotions. But I’m certainly not interested in not feeling. There are reasons to be sad. There are reasons to be angry.

The electoral college map is an example of how ideas can be sold. People aren’t that easy to color code.

I never feel fully competent when writing about things like this. I often feel like I’m not being clear. And that may be because I don’t like to take the big stand too often. I like to keep the notion of complexity in play. Part of complexity is that there are moments when things get simple and I have and will take a big stand now and then. I often feel like I’m jumping from the macro view to the micro view and trying to stop and every point in between.

What I can say with confidence is that there are a lot of great people doing a lot of great work. I think a bit of despair is inevitable and not such a terrible thing and I like the idea of us all gathered for a plaintive wail. If you’re wailing, I’m wailing with you. And then we can make a joke and have a giggle and make some plans.


It’s not like Larissa really understood what was at stake in the election…but she’d worked so hard for Dunbar, she’d come to believe in whatever it was that he stood for and sincerely believed it was better and more well-intended than whatever it was that the other guy stood for. Larissa had been raised to believe in causes for the sake of belief itself: her father often quoted to her the lyrics of a country song that advised “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Molly, Larissa believed, hadn’t really stood for something: her desire to become a paralegal was motivated by her desire to find a man and start a family, so she’d somehow gotten sidetracked into achieving the latter without any of the former. One day after Dana had stopped working for the campaign, Larissa had sat quietly stuffing envelopes after the other campaign workers had gone home. In the quiet of an empty campaign office, illuminated by a single bare light bulb hanging over the long folding table where she worked, Larissa vowed to Do Something with her life, to somehow Make a Difference.

Hoarded Ordinaries

. . . There are fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
People I’d like to condense down into one box,
Down into some three ingredient recipe some
Simple formula for this vote that separates me
From you
From bad
Make it small enough to describe, control, dismiss
Language of a sixth grader, language of an election
Language of a soundbite.
As if a page of words can explain the feelings, motives
Histories, beliefs of fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
Individuals who are not me.

But what are the chances that one of the fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
Is more like me than I dare to believe?

Division. There is page after page of problems in the homework packet
He spends hours putting one number into another, finding remainders
Subtracting until there is nothing left, neatly solved.
We say division is the wake of this election
But this is nothing like the methodical effort of
Dividing one hundred into fiftyone percent and fortynine percent,
Dividing the map into twohundredseventynine red and twohundredfiftytwo blue
Dividing my neighborhood into Bush signs or Kerry signs
The signs no one has taken down because
This is who “I AM” this is who “YOU ARE” this is how we disagree
This is the gulf we have to cross . . .

A line cast, a hope followed

It’s kinda heartening, though, ain’t it? On the morning after this political disaster, there are people out there searching for beefcake and boobs. It reminds me of that Larsen cartoon where there’s a city in flames and people running and cars jamming the streets and then there’s this dog with his nose to some spot on the ground, with the caption, “And then Ralph found something interesting.”

3rd House Party

Friday, November 5

I happen to believe that the liberal choice framework and some form of secularist culture are the better options. I’m cautiously optimistic that secularism is too widespread for any move toward Falwelltopia to ultimately succeed. But the cultural revivals among Native American tribes suggest that all may not be lost for cultural conservatives. What’s necessary is for them to focus on a reconstructed conservative culture that is compatible with and appealing under the liberal framework, rather than seeking to reverse that framework or forcibly eliminate their competitors under it. To do that would require offering an alternative to the weaknesses of secularism (such as the alienation created by consumerism) rather than attempting to imitate secularism’s successes (such as with self-consciously “trendy” pop evangelicalism).


I have far more in common with those evangelical Christians than I have in common with my parents, with most of the professors who taught me, or with most of my political allies. I don’t believe that life is about maximizing wordly pleasure. I don’t believe that this world can be fixed (though I believe, maybe inconsistently, that it’s our duty to try to fix it)….

But there is a way in which I think they are wrong. I don’t think the hollowness is out there, in some parcel of wicked politicians or biased journalists or rancorous academics. It’s in almost all of us, and it won’t be fixed by just voting in people who stand tall and say that they pray a lot. The problem is not — particularly — that our leaders are hollow. It’s that we are.


Ship of State

The red Valdez breaks through the shipping lanes
advancing towards Bligh Reef while Hazelwood
vacations on his ranch. His crude oil drains
the wilderness of soul and livelihood,
past Rocky majesty, from western sea
to bright blue liberal Massachusetts’ coast.
We question constitutionality
of missions not accomplished in this most
protected ecosystem, question spills
of cargo–not just business enterprise,
but hearts and minds, endangered blood, free wills,
and meant for more than suits to televise.
Remember cutthroat trout, the common loon–
you can’t impeach this fucking mess too soon!


Since about Halloween, I have been on a sugar binge. Then, today, the bread was definitely like adding insult to injury. Already lethargic from the sugar, I now also feel achy in the joints … and I won’t even go into the other symptoms … from the bread.

I also feel dulled, as if I had lost a few IQ points myself in the process. And yet, I haven’t been able to stop eating. That, and reading blogs all afternoon and evening.

All this gluten and glucose … I think this might be the secret recipe to get with the program, to join that majority in front of the TV set.

alembic [ellipses original]

I am horrified and frightened by the emotions I have raging inside myself, emotions that I have clearly been caging in my heart for years. I am profoundly disturbed that my writing flows most smoothly when I write as a screaming, bloody raven instead of a peaceful, happy frog. The frog was boring, but pleasant. The frog was safe. The frog was being boiled alive in her own complacency, but she was happy and she had friends and safe, easy friendships. She posted silly quizzes and pictures of kitties and chirruped happily about the lovely world she lived in. Her sorrows on the whole were small ones, or her own personal burdens to bear. Occasionally she would stamp her little frog feet in anger, but this entertained her friends and charmed them.

Now I am a black, bloody raven, beak dripping with gore. And I wonder if that gentle green frog will ever return. Somehow, I doubt it.

Frogs and Ravens

The game was called “five good things.” The object was to come up with five good things about George W. Bush. It was harder than I thought it would be! I recommend it to any Kerry-supporter, or anyone inclined to think of Bush as “pure evil.” He isn’t. No one is.

the vernacular body

One reason I stopped blogging at the end of the summer was in great part because of this sense of something in myself dissipating into the light of the screen and my muscles forgetting the stop-motion of walking and immersing myself in the arms of other living things. I had found myself following one contention to another through the cerebral world of blogs and the internet, arguing and sitting alone fuming and gradually darkening my mind with clouds of imagined wrongs. I wasn’t dealing with real people or learning more about living in the real world of nature. The very purpose of my feet and fingers, eyes and ears escaped my notice.

So I must stop myself here before I dive back into the water; I do not want to live my life fighting ghosts and demons. I want to learn to engage them and talk. I want to discover what it is that binds us all together and actuates language. Bush preaches hate and warmongering and revenge and absolutes. He refutes the mystery. And so many have fallen in step behind him, taking up his chants and marching to the beat. That is not how I want to live my life. That is not how I see the living things around me or how I want to greet other people. Not in the language of defeat and bloodletting.


I don’t want to think any more about the election. I’m grateful for the disaster, insofar as it disrupted me, and put my own small life into perspective. It temporarily threw me into a state of confusion and anger and fear. It made me want to rage against the decision, to do something huge, to scream and rant and fight and cry.

I’m feeling more settled now. It’s not apathy, or despair, or resignation: rather, I’m remembering what I’ve written here before. The most radical thing one can do is to stay present. There is nothing so important as remaining grounded in oneself, in being compassionate, and understanding, and wise. This does not mean doing nothing. It means doing everything. It means being human.

Nomen est Numen

Finally, one of the most eloquent reactions is completely wordless, just fifteen stark photographs gathered under one title, Into the Night, from Paula’s House of Toast. Check it out.

Blogging color, dreaming blogs

Some of the bloggists I read regularly have been writing about color in pretty striking ways. In a post last Friday – complete with a full-color sketch – Blaugustine described a man and his sons who boarded her car on the London subway:

To say that they were black says nothing. Their skin was African midnight blueblack, the colour of a starry desert sky and polished as the stones in a clear stream. There was not a hair on their heads or brows. Their smooth hairlessness and the extraordinary intensity and innocence of their eyes made them seem like beings from another planet. The man was dressed in a light-coloured tracksuit but the boys, under their black casual jackets, wore formal white shirts and white trousers. My sketch from memory does not do them justice. If I had brought my camera I would have asked permission to photograph them. Sometimes life generously offers you a brief encounter with absolute beauty to remind you that all is not lost and ugliness can never entirely take over the world.

On Tuesday, Fragments from Floyd reported on an encounter with unexpected, otherworldly beauty even closer to home:

A rounded mound that the rake could not clear away proved to be a flat rock under the leaves, thrown beside the shed for no good reason. I harrumphed as I bent over carefully to prize it up on end to lift and toss it to some other pointless place out of the way. And out of that mundane chore of autumn, in this world of orange and ochre, in that cool, safe space under the flat roof of rock where it would have spent its anonymous days fattening on spiders before winter, a newly-hatched Smooth Green Snake lay coiled in an emerald knot.

This time, there is a photo. The green snake against the autumn leaves looks every bit as stunning as Fred says it was.

At Vernacular Body yesterday, I was charmed by

the sight of a pile of yellow leaves on the sidewalk. They are suddenly carried on a gust: it is a precise and unified motion, exactly like that of a school of fish.

And at Ditch the Raft, Andi is in northern India, on the first leg of a Buddhist pilgrimage with her father. Along with vivid descriptions of the people, the temples, the filth and squalor of the cities and the experience of being stared at everywhere she goes – and of learning to return that stare – she writes:

I’ve never seen such colors. The Rajasthani women wear lime greens, pine greens, saffron and tangerine oranges, lemon yellows and tumeric yellows, pomegranate and blood reds–and these colors mixed in with the incredible array of saris makes my eyes swim. I feel drunk on the color: it’s edible, tangible, colors I could walk on. If the colors in Malaysia were like wings, this is like flocks, waves, oceans of color.

In her latest post, she describes a visit to the cloth market at Udaipur:

Sometimes mirrors are sewn in, sometimes sequins, giving the cloth an extra glitter. On the really fine stuff, gold and silver thread is worked in. But what catches me again and again is the unmitigated sensuality of the cloth and the clothing. Colors to make poets die–they cannot be written–and live again–hope springs eternal. Colors to make women want to be beautiful or to feel beautiful, or at least this woman. You start imagining your home decked out in these colors. A room for reds, a room for blues, a room for greens, and a room for whites. Who knew white came in a rainbow of shades, hues, subtleties? A creamy white cotton relaxes next to the sharp shiny silk white; a matte hand-woven white envelopes where a filmy woolen white pulls one along like a breeze.

This is travel blogging at its best. Who needs photos?


Reading blogs before bed may or may not be a good idea. In my last dream before waking, I had been invited to a costume party at Elck’s flat in New York City, which he jokingly refers to as Long Hall. It was enormous. We sat awkwardly across from each other on overstuffed, Victorian chairs, Elck and I, and realized we had absolutely nothing to say to one another, having long ago exhausted our eloquence in our blogs. Then other people began flowing in. They were all wearing gorgeous saris and matching headscarves, even the men.

Suddenly, I realized I was similarly outfitted, Lord knows how. The six meters of cloth were striking, Andi, but they were suffocating! I stripped back down to my usual jeans and quilted plaid shirt.

Before I knew it, however, I was wrapped in a sari again! How was this happening? Clearly, someone must be slipping something into my drink – or else those two wily magicians Elck wrote about the other day were hiding somewhere about and using me for an impromptu demonstration of their powers. For the second time, I divested myself of the exotic cloth, folded it and placed it on the chair. My usual cocktail party paranoia set in. Why was nobody talking to me? Were they really all snickering at me, or was it just my imagination?

Well, you know how these kinds of insecurity dreams go: once you get into an imaginative rut, it’s hard to change course. The third time, I found myself outfitted in a heavy, gray monk’s habit. In addition, they had strapped one of those backpacks for carrying small children on my back. What did this mean? I had no idea. But I knew this much: they weren’t going to get away with it!

I tore off the backpack and the habit and carried them into an empty storeroom. There was only one thing to do, I realized as I stood there listening to the clinking of wineglasses, high-pitched laughter and fragments of witty repartee. I would take off all my clothes! That’ll teach ’em to make fun of the hillbilly!

I remembered the last time I had been naked at a party, a late-night affair with a backyard hot tub on a quiet back street in Tyrone. Everyone else was naked, so I figured it was cool. Only months later did someone leak the truth: they’d all been staring at me! No one had seen that much body hair on a human being before, my friend Chris informed me. “We weren’t making fun of you!” he assured me. “We were just, you know, amazed! I mean, you even have hair on your butt!

So fifteen people – including one fairly attractive, hetero female and a couple bisexuals – had been staring at my naked butt. Great.

But that was years ago – long before I discovered blogging. Now, after ten months on the Via Negativa, I said to myself, being naked at a costume party seems pretty much par for the course. I can do this!

Unfortunately for the sake of this retelling, that’s when I woke up. So I guess you’ll have to supply your own endings. And I’m afraid that, since I have put the image of my hairy, naked body unbidden into your heads, your dreams too may take a disturbing turn, like a pile of yellow leaves on the sidewalk. They are suddenly carried on a gust . . .

Heart exam

I’ve been re-reading The Seven Ages, Louise Glück’s ninth and “strangest” book, according to the copy on the bookflap (typically written by the author). The following lines (from “Eros”) struck me this morning:

I needed nothing more; I was utterly sated.
My heart had become small; it took very little to fill it.

This made me wince with recognition.

Then in the blogs I found some equally memorable phrases, as if continuations of the same thought. At Creek Running North I found this:

Out came the fortune cookies, invented, doncha know, not half a mile from where I sit here in my office. Mine read something like “If your desires are not extravagant, they will be granted.”

Very Chinese. And yet for a moment I read it as one of those wonderful old Paris Enrages slogans, thinking it read something like “If your desires are not granted, they were not extravagant enough.”

Then just now I click on Lekshe’s Mistake and find this:

Fading breaths say less than silence. A heart unlocked is not necessarily open.

Lost & found

Amidst last winter’s restless, unswept ash,
behind the cinder-laden grate, she found
a bird’s nest, tumbledown and skeletal.
It fit exactly in one upturned palm,
its hollow in her hollow. This is mine. . . .

– “Empty Nest,” Paula’s House of Toast


How is money made? Money is made through advertising. And how does advertising work? Well, to quote a movie I saw not long ago, advertising entails “thinking up ways to make people feel bad” so that you can sell them something to make them feel better. Advertising depends on the notion that we feel there’s something deeply wrong with us, something lacking, something flawed. We grow up in a society in which we’re taught from day one that we’re not good enough, and will never be good enough, and that we’re empty at our cores.

This is a lie. It’s cruel and deep and dangerous, and it’s a lie. A pervasive one. This lie gets down deep in our core notions of self. Living with this understanding is intolerable. It’s painful. It fucking hurts. And some of us starve to suppress this hurt. Starvation – a constant obsession with food – is far preferable to feeling that aching, howling emptiness. Some of us try to fill the lack in other ways. We eat. We eat. We eat. Some of do both: we start out starving, set on whittling ourselves down to nothing, hell-bent on demonstrating to the world the nothing inside us, but in desperately needing to fill this emptiness, we gorge. And then reempty ourselves.

– Nomen est Numen


Now, it is said that a Buddha “generates no karma,” which might sound like it means essentially free of cause and effect (since that’s what karma really means.) But I’m not sure it means that. I think it may only mean that a Buddha’s actions, unlike an ordinary person’s actions, lay him under no future compulsion. A Buddha, you might say, is a person who forms no habits.

If there is a space of freedom — and I’m by no means sure that there is, that the word “freedom” has any real referent — it is not a “freedom of the individual,” but the freedom of understanding that the narrow subset of reality that I usually call “Dale” is in fact not a self-standing limited thing at all, but rather a piece of something infinitely spacious, changing, interconnected, & interwoven. The desperation I feel when “having no freedom” seems like an awful thing is actually the desperation I feel at the prospect of being trapped as my own self-conception forever — which is indeed a terrifying thought. But a delusory one. I can’t be trapped into being “Dale” forever. I’m not even “Dale” now :-)

Dale, in a must-read comment box at the cassandra pages


The more I read about this case, the more I am struck by this sense of identity being experiential rather than intrinsic – that it is not our bodies, but what is done to them, not our teeth, but the cement used to fix them, that will identify us. I also feel sadness that dental cement is more unique than the tooth – that I could dig through a whole pile of bones and never recognize them, were it not for a crack or fissure or scar, the chemical composition of an adhesive, the sheer dumb luck that such an adhesive could be new or rare.

That we have to be broken to be restored.

– evidentiary: alchemy


When asked the wherabouts of a lost item, my husband’s grandmother would often say it’s probably down in the cellar behind the ax.
I think translated it meant don’t bother me with that, go look for it yourself.

I like that saying. I don’t actually have an ax in my basement but I love the thought that all the things I’m searching for just might be behind one.



If you want to know a place, to really know the place, you have to live there and die there and give your elements back to the soil there and let the stink of your decomposition lift to the sky there.

We are just tourists, that National Geographic writer and I – and we should be a little more courteous. Because we can write, because we can write about this place, that gives us no proprietary rights. In fact, all we are doing is borrowing, and what we are borrowing we ought to treat well.

The Middlewesterner

A Franciscan Travel Blessing

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,
half truths and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice,
oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may wish for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

– Ditch the Raft


Suddenly, the little tab in the top center of my Yahoo inbox that used to say “Powered by hp,” is fire-engine red and fires a new slogan one word at a time, Burma Shave style.

YOU (with a target for the O)
you + hp

There’s a thought! Interesting timing, too: I hadn’t noticed it until a couple days ago. Right on the eve of the GOP convention, which is described as the most scripted and theatrical ever.

I gather that on Sunday afternoon, as several hundred thousand of the unwashed mashes acted out their own playlists in the streets, the illuminati of the Republican Party were in the theatres enjoying special Republican Party-approved Broadway musicals, such as “The Lion King” and “Wonderful Town.” “No one will be sent to see Mark Medoff’s play ‘Prymate,’ . . . a show that confronts racial sensitivities and has a black actor playing a gorilla. They will not be sent to Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change,” a serious musical about civil rights. In fact, they will not be sent to anything that touches on contemporary issues,” the New York Times reported.

In other words,

you + GOP

Give my regards to Broadway.

Chasing shadows

Like a grain of sand added to time,
Like an inch of air added to space,
                                                  or a half-inch,
We scribble our little sentences.

Charles Wright, Appalachia (FSG, 1998)

For some time I’ve been chewing on an old bone of contention between artists and critics: is the image older than the symbol? I think yes. I remember Borges, not too long before his death, folded into his very tweedy jacket and staring sightlessly out at the fawning audience. The auditorium was packed for his evening lecture, which, he had said earlier in the day, he wished to be a discussion – but who was kidding whom? – about metaphor. Funny how an image stick in one’s head, the Chinese graduate student wrote in his spiral-bound notebook. (Penn State got them from the mainland even then; they stood out from other East Asian students with the bathroom slippers they wore everywhere.) Speaking through his interpreter, our honored guest discussed his favorite contention, that Life is a Dream. “But isn’t that itself a metaphor?” one of our more alert members of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts wanted to know. “No,” Borges intoned to the delight of many, who found said faculty member a little hard to take. “It is the truth!”

This would have been a scandalous notion had it come from anyone but the Great Writer. There was a bit of murmuring, to be sure. I remember murmuring something myself; I’m not sure what. “Freud have mercy!” perhaps, or “Pinch me!” But up spoke another of our champions to ask for an example of a poetic image with no metaphorical function. “Consider Japanese haiku,” said Borges. “‘The ancient pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water.’ Where’s the metaphor?” “Couldn’t you say the entire poem functions as a metaphor?” “You could, but it isn’t necessary. The poem doesn’t have to mean anything.” Japanese – ancient pond, mean nothing, wrote the Chinese grad student in the seat beside me.

I am oversimplifying as usual; you don’t have to tell me that. Symbols and metaphors aren’t exactly the same. But I find it interesting to try and imagine how the brain of an intelligent, social, non-human animal such as a dog or raven actually works, how it might see the world. Because of course the one big difference between us and the others is their lack of a symbolic language. No abstractions! But dreams, memory, emotion, anticipation, basic reasoning power – they have all that.

Well, the image that sticks in my head is of Fred First’s one year-old dog Tsuga chasing – or perhaps attempting to herd – the shadows of butterflies. He also bobs for rocks. There’s something awfully darn metaphorical about a blogger’s dog chasing the shadows of butterflies. Is he a literalist, I wonder, or a skeptic? It is equally easy to imagine him saying: “The Butterfly listeth where it will,” or: “I don’t believe in Butterfly. I know what I see.”

But I’m just being clever, as humans are wont to do. There’s enough meat there already without any help from me.


The retriever pup
chases butterfly shadows
even in his sleep.


Butterfly’s shadow:
the dog’s nose goes wild
at the lack of odor.


Muzzle to ground,
his legs get ahead of him:
herding shadows.


Butterfly shadow
on the lawn shrinks, vanishes.
The dog digs for it.


Head under water
the golden retriever
keeps his eyes open.


On the creek bottom
every pale stone’s alive with shadows.

Hanging gardens

What is wrong with me, that I don’t agonize about the purpose of my blogging as so many other bloggers do? A few days ago, my brother Steve asked me what I wanted to achieve with Via Negativa. I had to give it a little thought. My first reaction was, “beauty is its own excuse for being,” but that seemed awfully conceited, so instead I stressed its importance to me as a daily goad. I’m as lazy as the day is long, so, unlike more highly motivated writers for whom blogs are at best a compliment to their daily efforts and at worst a time-eating distraction from more serious stuff, for me, blogging is at the center of my writing practice right now.

Another, closely related purpose is to explore a number of concepts that interest me. Blogging forces me to do more research than I otherwise might, as well as to arrange my thoughts in at least a semi-coherent fashion – which may or may not be desirable, from a poetic point-of-view. I told Steve I like to imagine Via Negativa as a kind of garden (employing the age-old image from Arabic literature), while remaining fully conscious of the difference between the world of Nature and the world of the text – or the Internet. I also mentioned the importance of establishing connections with other writers and readers through comments, responses in other blogs, and e-mail. The sense of kinship this creates must be a bit like how it feels to live in an artists’ colony. Finally, I said something about the ephemerality of all artistic expression. I simply don’t believe there is such a thing as literary universality or immortality, and even if there were, I don’t see how it could possibly be good for the soul to pursue it.

This morning another thought occurred to me. Once a blog achieves a certain, probably fairly minimal threshold in readership, the chances become pretty good for multiple preservation of its best moments. Occasionally one receives hints that this is happening, as over-enthusiastic readers may let slip that they habitually save and/or print their favorite entries – and of course it’s rarely the entries one would have thought. So there’s a triple level of uncertainty, which I find delicious to contemplate:

1) I don’t know how many people will read any given post;

2) I don’t know how people will read a post, in terms of the level of attention or unique life experiences they may bring to it;

3) I don’t know whether or in what form (paper, hard drive, through linking or quoting elsewhere, etc.) a given post may be preserved.

Only at this third level of uncertainty does blogging differ substantially from non-electronic forms of publishing. But isn’t it really just a subset of a much larger mystery that ought to concern everyone who believes in the capacity of individuals to leave a mark and/or change the world? That is,

4) I don’t know to what extent a word or action of mine may be passed on, magnified (“the ripple effect”) or perhaps slowly transmogrified beyond all recognition (a la “whisper down the lane”). A word uttered half in jest may land who knows where and change some unknown heart – like an insect unwittingly carrying pollen between widely separated plants, facilitating an act of creation which is, if anything, more marvelous for the complete absence of any conscious intent, any knowing agents.

Have you ever looked closely at the handiwork of papermaking hornets? Someone collected a small yellow jacket nest and left it on the verandah of my parents’ house, where I noticed it a couple days ago. Lacking reading material at the time, I was bored enough to pick up the golf ball-sized nest and rotate it slowly on my finger. Not only was it shaped like a potter’s creation – a narrow-mouthed water jar with a missing bottom, perhaps – but I noticed that it had clearly been constructed following the coil method. There was a subtle modulation in shades of gray between one millimeter-wide strip and another, presumably reflecting differences in the source material.

Later, I looked in vain through my mother’s nature library for detailed descriptions of vespid papermaking techniques; all I found was the information that the founding queen abandons all building duties after the first generation of workers emerge from their final molts, and that inside layers were continually ripped away as the nest expands. Even the miniature example I had in hand contained three, tightly nested layers. I think this style of architecture has insulating and cooling effects. I vaguely remember reading something somewhere about air circulation and heat exchange in hornets’ nests.

But lacking any designer save so-called blind instinct and random chance, can one still consider this “architecture”? I am fascinated by all the beautiful and symmetrical objects so made – bird’s nests and eggs, seashells, beaver lodges – although I realize that the distinction between making and growing is fairly arbitrary. As the world’s most fully self-conscious creators, I often wonder, don’t we humans have an obligation to celebrate such manifold and wondrous creations – to intuit Creation, maybe even a Creator? Can it be that wonder and awe play some obscure yet necessary role in the moment-to-moment preservation of the universe?

Without our joyful participation, beauty would have little excuse for being, I sometimes think – then immediately chide myself for excessive anthropocentrism. We humans are no less blind than hornets. I think especially of us bloggers, walking upside-down and backwards in a circle to make our elaborate castles in the air, regurgitating half-digested matter gathered from wherever it pleases us to alight . . .

And the critics go wild

dude, what kind of blog is that? I can’t even make fun of you in the comment threads. How am I supposed to infiltrate and undermine nothing? I am an anti-nothing and want my right to dissent back!
– Jim K.

(Dave’s note: bookmark Jim’s own blog for all your northwest PA news needs,

I read your blog some. Lots of nuggets there but, in general, it hurts my head. Too much at once for me, end result is mental chaos…for me. Good ideas tend to have more power when they’re all by themselves on a page…IMHO
– Snoid

– Marcia B.

There is no substitute for conversation…there just isn’t.
* * * *
Since reading your blog I look at my old pants very differently.
– Lucy B.

too deep for me. play some skynrd.
– Mark B.

Caveat emptor

I am not a profoundly original thinker, merely a good synthesist. Syncretism is always a temptation I must work to avoid: a decent respect for the integrity of different peoples and their traditions demands it. (Which is not to say that creolism or mestizaje is something to be scorned — far from it!)

I’m hoping this format, which favors shorter expressions, will encourage precision. Unbloggerlike, I want to write not the way I talk but in a slightly more controlled fashion. Most important, to write in anticipation of response, and therefore to leave quite a bit unsaid. (Free hosting at so far precludes a response form, but I’m hoping that will come. In the meantime, feel free to e-mail me.)