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Postscript on masochism vs. longing

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Longing: Anthology and Meditation


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.



holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.

Say a requiem mass for your job as a priest in the U.S.A.

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I just recently learned (via frizzy logic’s coverage of the Ig Nobel Prizes) about a startling new front in the global struggle over so-called free trade: outsourcing prayers.

Following the outsourcing of software and other technological work in recent years, Western nations have now begun “offshoring” of Christian prayers to India.

“With Roman Catholic clergy in short supply in the United States, Indian priests are picking up some of their work, saying Mass for special intentions, in a sacred if unusual version of outsourcing,” The New York Times reported.

Joining Americans in sending Mass intentions, requests for services such as those to remember deceased relatives and thanksgiving prayers, to clergy in India, are Canadians and Europeans.

No other Indian state receives more intentions from overseas than Kerala, where the Masses are conducted in Malayalam. The intention, often a prayer for the repose of the soul of a deceased relative, or for a sick family member, thanksgiving for a favor received, or a prayer offering for a newborn, is announced at Mass.

At five to ten dollars a pop, saying masses for Americans is providing much-needed income for needy priests. Requests are shipped by way of the Holy See, often via e-mail. The Ig Nobel committee was sufficiently impressed to award the 2004 Prize in Economics to the Vatican.

Perhaps this is what the Pope meant last year when he told a delegation of bishops from India, “Christ continues to make your Dioceses fertile ground for his harvest of faith.” Curiously, I found no mention of the Ignoble Prize on the Vatican’s website.

October morning (tone poem)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Out for a walk before breakfast, I quickly miss my hat. The sky is clear, & as the light increases, the leaf color in the understory grows more & more distinct. Whenever I pause, the clouds from my breath rise straight up. It’s as if I’m sending smoke signals – but what is the message?

Just as I reach the top of the ridge, the sun comes up. There’s a sudden honking of Canada geese from somewhere a mile or two away: a small, local flock, I imagine, has just crossed paths with the sun at this very same moment. I look carefully to the right and left of the growing blaze of light above the horizon. The valley fog forms a parallel ridge system: ghost mountains, thrown into high relief. When I turn away, blue dots appear in my field of vision on either side of wherever I focus my gaze.

The sun at sunrise doesn’t rise; it descends. From the crowns of the oaks it seeps down limbs & trunks. I follow the moss-covered trail between shining columns, wade through streams & pools of soft, golden light. Saplings already in their autumn colors seem lit up from within. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a Maxfield Parrish illustration.*

To the west, the mountain’s shadow draws a straight line across the fog. Below in the darkness: a train whistle, cars on the highway. Above: a layer of white. Then the crest of the Allegheny Front shining in the sun. Then nothing at all.

By the time I get back, the sun’s halfway down the field. Fog streams from the barn roof. A nuthatch taps in the top branches of a walnut tree.

Western Pennsylvania botanist and photographer Paul Wiegman, in a post to a botanical listserve, writes:

The color change is beginning at the highest elevations of Allegheny Mt., Negro Mt., Laurel Ridge, and Chestnut Ridge, and the lower elevations are still green when viewed from a distance. From within the forest the changes are low to the ground with the ferns and herbaceous vegetation, and some of the understory trees.

Given these two notes, it appears that fall starts from the tops of the mountains and creeps to the lower elevations at the same time it begins at ground level and slowly rises into the canopy.

Cold October morning.
The katydids get started
well before noon.

A chorus of chipmunks
up & down the ridge:
mine mine mine mine mine mine mine.

Cold morning.
A forest full of spiderweb silk
& only the sun to trap.

“All this, here, overpowers everything,” Tom Montag wrote yesterday. “When you see just how beautiful the world is, all of a sudden it swallows you up and there is nothing left of you to send home. The place takes you and you’re gone. All we can write are love letters or suicide notes.”

He’s talking about watching the waves at Keweenaw Bay on Lake Superior. But it could be almost anywhere, I think. And what if one is already at home? To whom should we address our letters then?

Earlier, as I sat outside drinking my coffee, I noticed that the first hole had appeared in the wall of foliage across from my front porch: a small spot of pale blue among the yellow poplar and birch leaves. In a few weeks I’ll have my view of the horizon back.

But it’s folly to think that when the trees are finally all bare, things will become – you know – somehow clearer. Because isn’t this how one pictures a revelation? Brilliant. Brief.

In between there’s green, there’s brown, there’s November gray. And yes, for you fans of clarity, there’s baffling white.

This morning it seems
suddenly remarkable
how every shadow leads
to a particular bush, to some
tall trunk. I stand
like a tracker lost among
a profusion of paths, squinting
into the sun.

*E.g. (That would be me on the left.) Amid much awfulness, “Dream October” actually isn’t too bad.

This is a contribution to the Ecotone wiki topic Plants in Place.

Longing (5): the narrow road

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”


Cue up Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, “Djam Leeli” (“The Wayfarers”)

I want to begin this last installment with a salute to all casual or first-time readers: you who have just alighted briefly in the course of a Google search for something else entirely and are wondering, “What the hell’s all this, then?”, or you wanderers who have been whiling away a few hours in a maze of links. “Longing? You gotta be kidding! How can anyone blog longing? What’s to say?

“On the other hand, what’s not to say?”

This extended meditation/collation of texts was sparked by the close conjunction in my mind of two very dissimilar things. One was the Robert Hass quote with which I have been heading each installment. The other was a chilling series of graphic photos and journal entries purportedly from an S&M slave that I stumbled across online, just as some of you have now stumbled here. I don’t normally get too worked up thinking about what consenting adults might choose to do to each other in the privacy of their own homes. It’s a free country, right? What disturbed me about this site was the lucidity with which the self-described slave extolled her torture, humiliation, and loss of will.

One page contained a critique of desire that could almost have been written by an adherent of some more extreme world-denying religious sect – a modern-day Manichaean. Like most people, she said, I grew up in a soulless American suburb convinced that the key to happiness was to acquire more and more stuff and to indulge myself in every way possible. But I found that the more I fed my desires, the more insatiable they grew, and the unhappier I became. But since I found my master, I have become a completely new person. The person I used to be no longer exists, vanished along with all consideration of “happiness” or “fulfillment.” I no longer have any will or desires of my own apart from his. I am his whore, a possession for him to dispose of as he wishes. If he took me to the edge of a cliff and told me to jump, I would do so without a moment’s hesitation.

I’m paraphrasing because I can’t quite bring myself to go back there (the torture photos were kind of harsh). In the past I have encountered some equally disturbing blogs that explore these issues from both master and slave perspectives; they shouldn’t be hard to find if you’re curious.

The point is, a little while later when I read that poem by Hass, I had a bit of a “Eureka” moment and decided to launch what would be in effect a brief for unquenchable desire. I wanted to avoid moralizing as much as possible, concentrating instead on presenting a comprehensive epidemiology, if that’s the right word. Deciding which among untold thousands of applicable cases to include has been daunting. Many of the blogs I read (mole, Lekshe’s Mistake, The Coffee Sutras, the vernacular body and Nomen est Numen, among others) deal with themes of desire, suffering and impermanence on a regular basis, so I knew I could avoid the more obvious sources.

It’s not exactly an original subject. And as the 20th-century Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz maintained, it may be every poet’s most essential theme: “The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved,” he maintained. (English translations of his selected poems by Naomi Lazard have been published by Princeton University Press under the title The True Subject [1988].)

I guess if I had to articulate my own position, I would say that for societies or individuals to achieve health and harmony, they must seek a balance point between longing and satiety, transcendent and immanent forms of the divine. There must be a middle way, whether or not one follows the Buddha’s eightfold path. In this last installment, I want to celebrate the journey itself.


Cue up Bessie Smith, “Long Old Road”

Blues lyrics so often look flat and disappointing on the page. If you can’t actually hear Bessie Smith’s world-weary contralto balanced by Louis Armstrong’s horn, the drummer’s snare interpolated between the Empress’s phrases – call and response, I and Thou – then the words she happened to sing on that long-ago day at the beginning of the Great Depression might seem a little lacking. It would be like trying to intuit a tapestry merely from the warp on the loom.

The frank despair of “Long Old Road,” while it might conform to popular stereotypes about the blues by people unfamiliar with the music, is something rarely found in an art form that was intended, first and foremost, as catharsis – medicine, as so many blues performers have testified in recorded interviews. Blues music in the early and middle decades of the 20th century functioned as a kind of secular alternative to organized religion for African Americans struggling to escape the daily indignities of Jim Crow in the South and discrimination in the north. It was unusual for a singer to declare on record, as Smith did in one of the last recording sessions before her tragic and untimely death,

You can’t trust nobody, you might as well
be alone.
Found my long-lost friend, and I might as well
stayed at home.

It has always struck blues fans as darkly symbolic that Bessie Smith died in the heart of that vast, deltoid-shaped piece of floodplain known as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, origin of what would become the most famous style of guitar blues. Actually, the Delta included several distinct musical traditions, but the one that people most identify with the region was invented in the environs of Clarksdale – the very place where Bessie Smith’s road reached its untimely end.

In the years following Bessie Smith’s death there were conflicting accounts of how she actually died. What is known is that after a late night performance somewhere in Mississippi, probably Natchez, Bessie headed for Memphis in a car driven by her boyfriend, Richard Morgan. In 1937 there were no expressways and Route 61 was a typical poorly lit, winding two-lane road. Near the outskirts of Clarksdale, in the early morning hours of that September day, their car, being driven at a high rate of speed, crashed into the back of a truck stopped on the side of the road.

A visit to this area two years ago finally gave me the images I needed to complete a poem I had been trying to write (and had even gotten published once, in an earlier version) for fifteen years.

Bessie Smith, September 1937

From here to home an empty stretch
of Mississippi mud. Step on it,
Ten years after the great flood
& everything still smells musty.
Could be
the Delta’s always like that–
overbearing sun fathering
cotton clear to the horizon,
rich black soil deeper than memory
& never a stone to throw.
The moody river & its serpent brood of bayous.

But I stay too long in any one place
& it heats up until I can hardly think
without boiling over, the fat
hits the fire & the whole
joint catches hell.

I need two bodies–the other
a refuge of Arctic relief for this
weary one, this jinxed & ginned
smoked glass-translucent skin
they spend a week’s wages to see
in the glare of gas lamps.
And the voice they skip revival for–
sure it’s mine. But the way
it takes hold of me sometimes
like a dog with a piece of old rag,
shakes me from head to foot,
I don’t know. That’s when I give
the word, hire a car
or hitch up with the next train out.

Keep moving. In all this flatness
I stand out like a bug.
But the moment I close my eyes
I’m stepping up to my house
back in Tennessee. With a sweet
soft absence of sound
I ease into the dark parlor,
my furs & silks whisper to the floor,
there’s the briefest of rattles as I slide
the deadbolt home.


Cue up Johnny Shines, “I Don’t Know”

Highway 61 was, even more than Route 66, a road to (relative) freedom. The northward migration of African Americans in the last century, flooding into the cities as economic refugees, was in many ways comparable to the earlier immigrations of peasants from Europe and China. U.S. Route 61 was the main north-south corridor between Mississippi and Chicago, and people, money, and music flowed in both directions. But even as some African American men were able finally to achieve a measure of security with a job from Henry Ford, their economic conditions remained still too marginal for many to provide for their wives or girlfriends, and those who had work as servants or cleaning ladies in the south were all too often unwilling to take their chances in a cold and alien north. In a country where employment was an essential accoutrement of manhood, the price for increased dignity and freedom was further instability in family relationships that had been fragile since slavery times.

This was the backdrop for Johnny Shines’ masterpiece, “I Don’t Know.” Again, while the lyrics in themselves are suggestive, one needs to hear Shines’ plaintive-yet-booming tenor, his understated slide guitar behind it. It is an ostensibly hopeful, even joyful, song with just a hint of melancholy about it – the opposite of “Long Old Road.”

Well I’m goin’ on the high road,
Gonna cross over on the eastern side. (2 x)
I’m gonna flag every passerby
Til someone give me a ride.

Well I’m goin’ to Chicago,
that’s what I’m gonna do. (2x)
Make a couple of paydays,
send back here after you.

When I’m gone, if you get lonesome
and you want to have some fun, (2x)
Just go on over to West Memphis, baby,
that’s where they barrelhouse all night long.

Shines grew up just south of Memphis in the northern tip of the Delta, and traveled all over the country playing music on street corners in the company of Robert Johnson. A moderately religious man, he never had much time for people who considered blues “the Devil’s music,” as he told an interviewer shortly before his death in 1992:

You want me to tell you where that all came from? It ain’t nothing but bullshit. That was told to us as a way of scaring us into never leaving the farm. Them overseers tried to prey on our religion, whenever they might see us playing guitar or mouth harp or drums or singing, they saw it as us trying to liberate ourselves, and they didn’t like it. Especially anyone who was running to another plantation to play a gig. We was freeing ourselves, and they couldn’t stand for that. So they told us that if we sang anything else but gospel music, we would die and go to hell and burn by fire and brimstone forever and all that mess. They even got our own colored preachers believing that stuff, so they preached it to us, too. Now, if a man had spent his life on earth in hell, he sure don’t wanna die and go to hell, so he changes his ways. A lot of black people got so scared to sing the blues, they would find an example within the town who was, say a bluesman, and they’d make him an outcast, call him the devil’s tool. And they invented folklore about blues musicians going to the crossroads at midnight and letting the devil himself come up and tune their guitar (laughing), and selling their soul to play the blues. It’s all a lie, just a plain lie. And when Robert made that song about ‘I went to the Crossroads and fell down on my knees/ asked the lord above have mercy/ save poor Bob if you please’ – well, that was proof to them that he done sold his soul! Boy, they really gave Robert hell in those church towns. They told him he would burn.

Then, everybody wants to know what exactly he was singin’ about in that song? It was just some old crossroads in Mississippi – I think it’s probably where the Southern crosses the Yazoo Dog [Railroad], up there in Moorehead. He was mocking the myth, more than he was fearing it.

Shines eventually got a factory job in Chicago. Despite a great voice and virtuoso command of the acoustic and electric guitar, he was unwilling to accept what he considered the humiliating demands of the recording industry. Only with his “rediscovery” by white blues fans in the late 60s did he finally enjoy a second career as a full-time musician, but he remained very much his own man. Like Bessie Smith, Shines put a premium on originality, refusing to adapt his style to conform to anyone’s stereotype, no matter how flattering. Greil Marcus described the effect of his music in a review in Rolling Stone: “Shines steps outside himself, considers his place in the world, draws you into his body, and then, still standing a few steps off, tells you where you are: where, for the moment you live . . . ”

homage to Johnny Shines

blue ribbon of tar runs by
my baby’s door where
I am bound

make a couple
of paydays
play it tight

write: here’s luck
you can bell the cat & clip
the eagle’s wing

sing: everybody
talkin bout heaven
aint goin there

prayer: in this city lord
there’s no horizon
where can I rest my eye

cry: baby
on You


Cue up the Sabri Brothers, “Kali Kamaliya Wale”

I’ve never been very good at separating the physical from the spiritual. The distinction strikes me as a little phony, despite a few, millennia-long traditions that assert an unbridgeable distance between the two. I’m not even sure that the great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade’s distinction between the sacred and the profane represents a universal truth. (Haven’t we had enough of universalizing ideologies by now?)

Nevertheless, to me, heaven remains a very potent word, more signpost than destination, pointing beyond the objectives born of shallow cravings. A strong flavor of heaven attaches to the holy aspiration itself:

Shaykh Nizam al-Din said that in Kaithal there was a saint whom they call Sufi Badhni. He was so completely ascetical that he went about totally naked. Shayk Nizam al-Din comments that according to Islamic law, any person who abstains from the minimal amount of food and water required to keep the body functioning, or who does not wear at least enough clothing to cover the body parts . . . is commiting a punishable offense, but Sufi Badhni was a saint of such high character that he was exempt from these restrictions. . . .

Sufi Badhni loved the life of prayer. He sat in the mosque in front of the mihrab and had no other occupation but offering prayers day and night. One day some ‘ulama’ came to see him, as many people used to. The shaykh queried the ‘ulama’: “Will there be prayer in paradise?” They answered: “Paradise is the abode of reward, where no desire will go unsatisfied, no need unfulfilled. Devotions are only necessary in this world.” When Sufi Badhni heard that there would be no prayer in paradise, he exclaimed: “I’ll have nothing to do with a heaven where there is no prayer,” and then he added something in Hindi not fit to repeat.

“The Life of Sufi Badhni,” Bruce B. Lawrence, in John Renard, ed., Windows on the House of Islam (University of California Press, 1998)

The poems of the 16th-century Vishnavite saint Mirabai – a Rajput princess who renounced her title and privileges to live as a wandering beggar – remind us that the attempt to locate God or heaven is in some sense a game; we might as well enjoy it.

I’m like
the cloth
that someone dyed.

I’ll go now,
play at hide
and seek to please

my lord,
wearing five
teasing colours.

When found,
I will become
one-hued with light.

With lovers
away, girls write
line upon line.

My love,
he is here

He does not leave,
he doesn’t
need to arrive.

Says Meera, I gaze
at the path day and night.

(Shama Futehally, tr., In the Dark of the Heart: Songs of Meera, HarperCollins, 1994)


Cue up Toshiro Mayuzumi, “Mandala Symphony”

What about pilgrimage, then? What is being enacted when, after many hardships and reversals, the pilgrims finally arrive at the threshold of the very image of heaven – right on earth?

The peyoteros assembled in a line, in their proper order, facing the ever-brightening eastern sky while Ramón chanted, prayed, and gestured with his plumes, until he directed them to set down their bundles. Ramón, at the head of the line, then beckond forward the first pilgrim, Carlos. Ramón squatted beside the largest water hole and taking up some in his gourd bowl removed Carlos’ hat and poured water into it. He then touched both of Carlos’ eyes with his plumes, sprinkled water on his hed, and had him drink that remaining in the bowl. The ritual varied somewhat for the primeros [first-time pilgrims]. Ramón took more time and care with them, praying over them longer. After they had drunk the Sacred Water instead of sending them immediately back to their places in line he removed their blindfolds and urged them to gaze up and behold the sacred place to which they had returned as gods. He pointed out the important features of the landscape, the places the gods had stopped and rested, eaten, sung, or talked with the animals while traveling back to their homeland. Especially affecting were Ramón’s ministrations to [his wife] Lupe at this time. He carefully led her from her place to the water and she remained motionless for a moment after he had removed her blindfold. He bade her to lift her eyes, to behold the place of the Ancient Ones, where it all began, and she did so slowly, almost reluctantly. The sun struck her face fully. She seemed transfixed and tears spread evenly down the wrinkles of her rapturous face. Seeing her thus no one could help but know that she found the Sacred Land as beautiful as she had been told all her life. . . .

Offerings were then spread out by each pilgrim, lined up, and displayed . . . With great care, each peyotero laid out or held heavenward his treasures, displaying them to the ascending sun. Impassioned prayers by Ramón told the gods that these were the offerings being brought for the hikuri. Ramón drew from his bags tortillas which he blended in his gourd bowl with some of the Sacred Water, stirring the mixture with the end of his candle, and then placed some of the resultant mixture in each pilgrim’s mouth. This was the sacred food of the First People. All prayed aloud but independently with great emotion, weeping and shouting, waving plumes and feathers and candles to the sky and in the four directions, pointing out the beauty of their gifts to the gods. Even the shyest and youngest among them, Victoria and Pablo, were outspoken and animated, imploring the deities to give them success in their quest.

The mood changed after the consumption of the sacred food. Laughter and shouts of joy replaced the weeping and praying, this because the “deities” had glimpsed their homeland and had been promised a successful return and peyote hunt. There was now much capering and cavorting. Francisco leaped about the springs like a rabbit, dazzling everyone with his agility. He had the gift of surprising people usually by looking one moment like a wizened fragile old man who would break if he moved, then suddenly and without warning leaping straight up in the air or dancing a little jig without reason. The bottles and gourds were brought out and everyone moved among the springs to gather the Sacred Water . . .

(Barbara G. Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, Cornell University Press, 1974)


Cue up Bela Bartok, “String Quartet No. 5, Movement IV (Andante)”

The months and days are wayfarers in eternity – wrote the aging poet-priest, echoing a long-ago preface to a poem by Li Bo – and as another year comes around it, too, turns vagabond. Those who float away their lives on boats or arrive on the threshold of old age leading a horse by the bit – traveling is a constant for them; they are at home wherever they end up. Many are the worthies who, in centuries past, met their deaths on the road, and for my part, it’s been years now since I first found myself unable to watch a solitary cloud drifting on the wind without succumbing to an aimless longing. Last year I wandered down along the coast, and in autumn when I returned to my hut along the river and swept out the cobwebs, I found the year already drawing rapidly to a close.

With the new year came skies filled with springtime haze, and I thought about crossing the Shirakawa Barrier into the far north. I became so possessed by wanderlust, it was as if the god of travelers himself had taken hold of me, and I couldn’t keep my mind on a single task.

So I patched up my tattered underwear, strung new cords on my bamboo rain hat, and had three moxa treatments on my legs. I couldn’t get the thought of the moon at Matsushima out of my head. I sold my patch of land and moved into temporary quarters at Sampu’s villa. When I left, I hung a poem on a post in my hut. It began,

Kusa no to mo sumikawara yo zo hina no ie.

Even a thatched hut with one turn of the wheel can become a house for dolls.

– Matsuo Basho, Oku no Hosomichi, “Narrow Road to the Far North” (1690)

Placebos for breakfast, anyone?

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Hey Mom, can I say “I told you so” yet?

For years – decades – I have been obnoxious in my resistance to the scientific approach to eating, including such things as counting calories, measuring fats, and paying attention to Recommended Daily Allowances of vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates. I never believed there was anything wrong with eating eggs, so I felt vindicated several years back when it turned out that the whole cholesterol thing was very poorly understood, and that eggs might be all right after all.

Now here comes another study – still “preliminary,” of course – suggesting that vitamin supplements can kill you.

For the latest study, the researchers examined the role of vitamins A, C, E and betacarotene (which is converted into vitamin A in the body) and the mineral selenium, taken either singly or in combination.

They investigated their effect against cancers of the oesophagus (gullet), stomach, bowel, pancreas and liver.

The results showed that a combination of betacarotene and vitamin A increased the death rate by 30 per cent and betacarotene combined with vitamin E increased it by 10 per cent. Selenium was associated with a lower risk of cancer, but the authors say this could be due to bias.

A possible explanation for the findings is that people may vary in their need for antioxidants (vitamins) according to the circulating levels of substances known as free radicals in the blood. Those with high levels of free radicals need extra vitamins to neutralise them but in those with low levels, extra vitamins may paradoxically protect cancer cells and have carcinogenic effects.

I think I’ll have another bowl of the Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs.