The telltale ridges

Here’s an old poem with a few revisions I made just now. (I see it’s high time I went through each of my never-finished manuscripts with the proverbial red pencil. I tell you, being a perfectionist is hell!)

I sentenced a raccoon to death
for burrowing beneath the kitchen,
undermining my sleep with its bumping,
scratching, gnawing on the beams.
I set a killer trap in the mouth of the hole.

Just after dark I hear the snap:
lights out.

But then a frantic yelping,
a scrabbling of claws against wood.
I grab the rifle, run around back.

The coon’s wearing the trap like an ugly necklace,
lips pulled back in an inadvertent grin,
front legs smashed.
It’s managed to wrestle free of the chain
& is dragging itself ass-first into the weeds.
I put the barrel against its neck & fire, leap back.
Its death-fit flings blood in a six-foot arc.

Then the inevitable work of recovering the trap,
disposing of the carcass.
I remember that afternoon
how I released a tiger swallowtail
that had gotten entangled in the nylon garden netting.
How it then had gripped my finger so tightly
I could feel each vibration as its wings
kept jerking open, easing slowly shut.
How its proboscis swayed,
mining my fingerprint for salt:
up & down & around the telltale ridges.

As I carry off the body I hear the first katydid–
six weeks till frost.
The coon’s matted fur doesn’t put me in mind
of a hat with a tail, only of
the gloves I’m not wearing, the hole
I’m not planning to dig.

Prayer among the free

Lorna J. Marshall’s Nyae Nyae !Kung: Beliefs and Rites (Harvard: Peabody Museum Monographs, 1999) is a companion volume to her 1976 work The !Kung of Nyae Nyae, and like that volume, summarizes and synthesizes the findings of numerous field workers among the Kalahari Kung from the 1950s to the present.

The following passage throws some more light on the origins of silent prayer, supporting, I think, my supposition that it is as old as prayer itself.

The !Kung have no rites in which they seek to placate the gods or to praise or worship them. They make no sacrifices, no offerings. The greatest of their rites, the Ritual Healing Dance, is the one rite that explicitly involves the gods. In this rite, when all the people come together and the healers go into trance and heal the people, the gods are confronted, not worshiped. The !Kung say that they scold the gods.

With the exception of this dance, all the !Kung’s communication with the gods is through individual prayer. !Kung society is egalitarian to the utmost. No person or class of people is set apart or above others, and there are no socially defined specialists, such as priests. Anybody may pray directly to the gods or to the other sky beings. People pray frequently and spontaneously at any time or place without assuming a special posture or observing any other formality. They speak to the gods as intimately as if they were talking to another human. Often, but not regularly, they address the great god as “father” and refer to themselves as his “children.”

People say the words of their prayers silently to themselves, or aloud as though thinking aloud, but speaking directly to the gods. They may also speak to each other so as to be overheard by the gods. When men go to look for honey, they may pray to Khwova N!a, the mother of the bees, to give them luck. Demi said, “We talk to ourselves, and she feels pity and leads us to the honey.”

The prayers seem very often to be in the form of questions that imply accusation – “Why do you do thus and so?” – but the people mean to plead mildly without displaying anger. The swearing of the healers, customary when they are in trance, does not appear in prayers. People often use the respect terms for the gods, but they also sometimes say the gods’ names aloud when they pray.

I like the idea that prayer can be as low-key as a conversation that the gods are meant to overhear. The modern cynic says “When I pray, I feel as if I am talking to myself!” The Kung says, “When I talk to myself, I feel as if I am praying!” Me too, sometimes.

Other Via Negativa posts on the Kung (!Kung) include Back to the basics and Education for healing.

Flowerless flower

I thought for sure we’d get the killer frost predicted for the night before last, but the thermometer read 33 (F) at dawn; there was just one, little patch of white down by the stream. But friends in the valley told us it got down to 26 degrees there. I had picked all the green tomatoes and brought them inside to ripen, but now, who knows how much longer the growing season might last? Very few of the certainties about the weather that I learned growing up in the 70s seem to apply anymore.


Yesterday I cracked out my trusty Chinese character dictionary and attempted a translation for y’all. I have left the subject ambiguous, as it is in the original. (The standard interpretation says the poem is about a woman.)

Flowerless Flower
sung to the tune of a popular song with the same title
Bai Juyi (also known as Po Chü-yi, 772-846)

Flowerless flower,
Of mist yet not of mist,
Comes around midnight,
Goes away at daybreak.
Comes like a dream of spring: so brief.
Goes like a cloud in the morning sky: no trace.


addressed to “Bonstanceus”

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Postscript on masochism vs. longing

In partial answer to a point raised by Siona in the [now lost] comments to my fifth meditation on longing: “We’re all masochists. Look at the country we live in. Look at how we treat ourselves. Look at how we’re treated. At least those who’ve taken on the label are brave enough – or clear-eyed enough – to admit it. Or perhaps it’s that they’re taking ownership of their abuse.”

Yesterday morning, when I was pulling toast out of the toaster oven, the knuckle of my left index finger brushed the hot coil with an audible sizzle. Since I felt nothing, my immediate reaction was surprise followed by fascination, almost a childish pleasure, at the shape of the mark: a little hollow of melted flesh. I felt the same kind of interest I might bring to some mindless entertainment on television: “mindless” in the sense of absent-minded, the way one might strip the seeds from a blade of grass in passing. The scratching of an obscure itch – except that in the beginning, the scratching makes the itch. Five seconds ago I knew nothing about this; now I can’t look away. Hey, maybe there’s something better on the other channels . . .

I’m an ex-smoker. I know a little bit about how one can satisfy oneself to death. But it isn’t ourselves we’re killing – not intentionally. It’s time – a kind of time peculiar to a culture of disenchantment. The smoker’s habit grows out of the universal human urge to break up the otherwise too-uniform flow. To build dams, you might say, for the music and excitement of the falls as well as for the quiet pools that form behind them, and the immense power that can provide.

Now let’s kick it up a notch. What about deliberate self-torture, or consensual sado-masochism? I can well believe some people might suffer from such a monstrous itch that only this most extreme form of scratching offers relief – or better, release. Others say that giving themselves what they do not want is a route – even a religious practice – to the overcoming of wanting. Still others may feel, in an ownership society (as the new Republican buzzword has it), that masochism is a way to stake a claim on one’s own suffering, and thus to experience power rather than powerlessness. In any case, in the presence of great pain I would expect to feel something approaching pleasure through the achievement of almost-pure focus.

It’s probably a truism to say that masochism is all about breaking down the barriers between pleasure and pain. But to the extent that the masochist means to go beyond desire, any experience of pleasure could be self-defeating. Perhaps the point is to break one’s attachment to the experience of pleasure or pain, to train oneself to accept whatever comes with equanimity? But in that case, why go through all the agony? Just meditate, for crying out loud!

Ah, but I suppose it’s nothing but cultural prejudice that leads me to favor one technique for mental discipline over another. Cross-cultural comparisons strongly suggest that, in a properly sacred and ritualized context, starvation and self-torture (Plains Indians) can be as useful a tool for self-transcendence as strong drugs (much of native South America), trance-dancing (Kung, Balinese) or meditative practices (Tibet).

Absent such a context, however, the possibility of the supposedly transcended self simply beginning to inhabit the tool strikes me as a very potent danger. How to avoid taking pride in one’s deprivation? Self-abuse, vernacular wisdom calls the most ubiquitous form of self-indulgence. The release provided by an addict’s hit is like the freedom equated with slavery by the Ministry of Truth in 1984. This makes sense: the tyrant is to the body politic as the masochist is to his own body. That “almost-pure focus” would never seem quiet pure enough.

What the habit-bound mind considers freedom – the escape from craving or compulsion – is like the delusion of a small child who thinks that when she shuts her eyes she disappears. One often sees a similar behavior among tyrannical regimes . . .

“Just be!” say the less intellectual among seekers – if that’s still the right word for them. (Such, in fact, is my own inclination, simple-minded pseudo-Daoist that I am.) Whatever you do, focus on that. Enter fully into every task, every object of attention. But this is a little deceptive; the flow cannot be halted, and one blocks it at one’s peril, as I have suggested (arguing by analogy with water – I said I was a pseudo-Daoist!). Motion is intrinsic to the process of world/self discovery: “There was a child went forth,” the poem wisely begins.

With motion we have change in position, we have distance between self A and self B. We have, then, longing – as Sufis especially have always recognized. Longing becomes pen and palimpsest with which to inscribe something paradoxical: inhabiting no-place, aspiring to no-aspiration. What are we after, really? You say, perhaps, Emptiness. I say, tentatively, You. But we can’t know what we need until we find it – and who needs it then? When you get the far shore, you ditch the raft. And in any case (whispers the sadist on my right shoulder) it’s more than you deserve.

But then in my left ear: more is your birthright. Don’t you believe in grace? The door’s open. The table’s set. O taste and see.

COMMENTS [reprinted from Haloscan]

Ah, finally you confront “it”, the subject of the longing you’ve been hitherto analogically circling.

But the thing, now, is whether “longing” and “wanting” are different things, whether “longing” is the desire of the self to be one with its self, while wanting is about aquisition, ownership, even when what is being owned is pained.

You would think the senseless difficulty of religion would be reason enough to abandon it but, truth be told, that is precisely the part of it that one misses the most. The pointless dumb interminable work of the spirit.

The title “the unbearable lightness of being” always made me uncomfortable. Now I’m wondering whether that isn’t because it was TRUE all along.

One cannot live blithely, or separately from the heaviness of things.

– elck


“even when what is being owned is pain”

– elck


‘Longing’ also has a pleasure/pain edge to it, as if a person might revel in it somewhat.



it’s pleasure because longing sparks the imagination and away it runs. The fantasy is often enough.

the sylph


Ms/Mr Sylph:

“The wanting binds you, but the longing sets you free,” shall we say? Sometimes, yes. Othertimes, I’m not so sure.

Though, now that I think on it, in that loevly quintipartite opus of his, Dave didn’t seem to make much of a distinction between “longing” and it’s cousin “wanting something real bad.” (“Real bad” in any sense of the words). So, there’s Hannah, desiring a child, and there’s Prince Karu who’s got the jones real bad for his own sister.



Thanks for these very helpful comments.

But the thing, now, is whether “longing” and “wanting” are different things – that’s already more than one “thing/s”!

I’d say they both are and are not the same. (You know I always try to dance between an outright rejection of reductionism and a cautious acknowledgement of its power.) I have been using “wanting” to refer to shallower desires and “longing” for deeper ones, because I think usage reflects such a distinction. But we can certainly argue about the validity of such a distinction. In any case, as I have tried to show, the range of emotions included in this one word longing run the gamut from creative to destructive, enlightening to addictive to despair-inducing.

If I may go out on a limb for a moment, I’d like to suggest that one of the major ways in which institutionalized religion tends to get it wrong is in trying to design “one size fits all” ideologies and practices. If you take the attitude that religion is/should be MEDICINE, then clearly the message must be tailored to the needs of the seeker/patient. One person might find comfort in loss of control – and thus should be challenged to pursue a more disciplined path – while another tends to want to control everything – and thus would be better off with some version of the “watercourse way.”

One cannot live blithely, or separately from the heaviness of things. I agree.

‘Longing’ also has a pleasure/pain edge to it, as if a person might revel in it somewhat. Of course. (This postscript would’ve been stronger had I pointed that out).

it’s pleasure because longing sparks the imagination and away it runs. The fantasy is often enough.
But all fantasies must end – and then we are back with that heaviness elck spoke of, no?



For better or for worse, I took my cue from Mr. Hass: desire is full / of endless distances. The meaning changes somewhat if you pause at the end of the line, does it not? (Of course, poets revel in ambiguity. Japanese poetics recognizes and selects for words that do double duty, as “full” does here: they are called pivot words.)

Desire can seem full, sufficient. But in fact it is empty – or full of caesura, of the abyss, of the great wide open. Hence longing.



the heaviness will always be there. And it should be entertained but why let it control the psyche any longer than it’s necessary to “get a grip”…the spirit takes flight at will, at stimulae…let the imagination rule and be ever thankful for your faculties. Observe the present and get lost in it.

the sylph


I love talking about the impossible, the untalkable.
That we can shamelessly do so here is a chief pleasure of the Via.

(I’m saddened to see the number of blogs in this neighborhood that are taking down their comments boxes).



Sylph: Amen!

elck – Thanks. But what else is there to talk about, really?

(I agree. I’m never quite sure what to do at a blog without comments. That’s one of the things i most like about the blogging medium – the way readers can become authors, and vice versa, the fact that we know we can be called to task for everything we write.)



Yes but



sometimes I am crushed
burnt and scattered
with longing

It’s a little too easy to talk



( )



I think it’s interesting that the comment thread went more into the word heaviness and less into the preceeding word separately. I could be in a different space here but…

To me longing is simply the desire to be one with, rather than separate from. My version of this would be our soul longs to reconnect with the energy of all souls, that it was rended separate from by the birth of our existance. But you could also posit it is separation from the mother who we experienced our first moments of awakening inside of, or separation from our sense of true identity as culture pushes and pulls us away from our central spirit.

Then longing to me is about wanting reconnection, and wanting is about wishing to feel better when the reconnection has not happened, and religion is about telling people how to reconnect, and desire is wanting something to fill the hole left by the disconnection. Anything to distract us from being separate, whether it’s numbing or stuffing or deducting or compulsing, and the farther away we feel, the more addictive it becomes. I wonder if the pain in masochism isn’t the reminder that we must be connected for someone or something else to have created pain in our bodies or psyches?
On a side note, as much as I’ve tried to confront my biases about S&M practices, the ones where a lot of pain and humiliation is inflicted and the participants talk about the total trust strike me as simply a way for people to prove they are unworthy of being treated well, proving to themselves they deserve to be punished… because the people I’ve known in that community had huge self esteem issues and it didn’t seem to me that the community was healing those. But again, I am likely just biased.



I have a hard time venerating masochism. I engaged in my own forms of severe self-abnegation for far too long, and have had a little too much interaction with the world of SI (self-injurers). I don’t see masochistic practices as being that different, and I’d be inclined, again, to compare them more to the self-destructive impulses of caged animals than to something as clarifying as meditation. The essential drive might be similar (and, to a smaller extent, the focused intensity of the experience), but Westernized masochism is, I think, far more a distraction from an intolerable boredom or an intolerable fear than an searching for real insight.

My own experience, which others might construe as extreme self-discipline, was rather of a total loss of control into the ‘discipline.’ I would be inclined to believe that masochists feel something similar: they need that feeling of abasement and pain, and they need that fix. It’s not much a “technique for self discipline.” It’s true that the self is lost in these struggles, but in a horrible and twisted way. It’s hard to articulate: there’s a temporary reprieve, a release, from one’s being, but in the wrong direction. If I sound biased, it’s because I am: I’ve walked through that fire, and it’s not a Holy flame.

I am generalizing, though, and for that I apologize. I’ve also veered madly away from the direction of the other comments. So I’ll stop.

I do like, though, what susurra has to say about separateness and connection. I’d like to mention the importance of connection with others: masochistic communities would fill this need; too, we feel more than ever disconnected from those around us, from those with whom we share a country. No wonder longing is topical.



Susurra and Siona – thanks for the thoughtful remarks. I agree with most of what you have written here.

Eliade says all cultures have a myth of separation, a “fall from grace” if you will. This sense of separation from from the cosmos seems to be an integral part of human consciousness.

I would go so far as to say that it might be one way in which human consciousness differs from that of other animals – except that, as Siona rightly points out, caged animals and pets exhibit many human-like pathologies – including self-mutilation.

I’ve had friends who have talked enthusiastically about S&M experiences, but these were isolated transgressions, and in a social context (S&M parties), not habitual components of their day-to-day lives. But yeah, I haven’t made up my mind on the subject & don’t feel any great need to. Especially since I WANNA BE WHIPPED, RIGHT NOW!!

O.K., just kidding.

I definitely defer to Siona’s experience and insights here. I guess I should’ve made it clear in the essay that I was postulating a few possible mental states of masochists for the sake of the argument. I was trying to take on such a mindset, and see what it felt like. But I didn’t mean to suggest that the examples I gave covered all bases, or even that they were particularly representational.

AIM leader Russel Means, an Oglala Lakota, maintains that the origin of the Sun Dance lies in the belief that men should try to experience a pain comparable to what women go through in childbirth.

Re: veering, whatever gave you the idea that wasn’t welcome here?! Take another look at the yellow street sign at the top of the page. If you don’t veer, you’re dead!



On the subject of separation, Lorianne’s post of that title is a must-read.



She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her. (Proverbs 3:18)

Standing water among the trees – an ephemeral pond usually dry by midsummer has been filled by all the rains of August and September. Stained to the color of dark tea, it traps bright leaves & bits of caterpillar frass. Backlit by the mid-morning sun, floodwater mosquitoes rise from the surface among streamers of mist.

Through that shallow mirror I glimpsed last year’s leaves lying brown within the outlines of each reflected trunk – red oak, sweet birch, black cherry – & their green & yellow canopies. Only the patch of sky was wholly reflective, pale blue permitting no double vision. I crossed over to the boulder field beyond: white quartzite scaly with green & orange rock tripe. I don’t know why I’m so struck by colors lately.

I thought about our fight a year ago last spring with the developers farther down the ridge and their plan to gouge out the side of the mountain for a shopping center. Now with the damage done, it appears they’ve run out of money & the whole thing will go bust. When our Audubon chapter was considering a legal challenge, we learned all about standing, & were told we didn’t have any. But the strata stand nearly on end, & geologists predicted a hydrological nightmare. Sure enough, during the torrential rains from Hurricane Ivan large sections of the excavation slid, threatening the freeway below.

I jotted down some thoughts in my pocket notebook: Standing stone. Standing water. Tree of Life. That was last week. I wonder now what I meant? Something about transpiration, perhaps, or how we each purify the world in our own way, & that’s what eventually kills us. This air, they say, carries more pollutants than in any comparable area on the continent. But if you were here, I’d show you hidden gardens among the rocks.