Excerpt from my Letter to Jamie, 18 August 07

Sometimes I think we are all like Schrodinger's cats, little black blind things wandering in the dark. Sometimes I think we are like Mao's paper tigers, fierce and disposable and signifying nothing lasting. And then sometimes I think we're like ronin, bereft warrior-monks casting about for someone to fight with/for, hearts bursting with pride and sorrow. But I also happen to believe that we are like the Tibetan legend, the village that perished in a blizzard, whose souls are continually caught up with each others' cycles of redemption and rebirth,constantly replaying the last lifetimes' worth of rivalries and disputes, constantly having to wait for the others to catch up.

It's like an endless sitcom: there's the Pretty One and the Funny One and the Angry Guy and the Wise Mother, there's the One Who Always Messes Up and the One Who Keeps Hoping and Planning, and whenever one or several of them fuck up and kill something, they all meet in the afterlife, collectively smack their foreheads, and agree to wait around or keep going through the rebirth cycle until That One Guy Who Keeps Getting Reborn as a Tiger can catch up with everybody and then they can all move on to the next level.

The legend goes that, as time went on, the village kept unconsciously growing, until now it encompasses the entire world, and we're all getting reborn into the same world together, because we've all agreed to keep waiting and trying to live noble lives until we can all move on to Nirvana together.




winged proas, caked blood and other things

A mass e-mail:


In her novel, "The Ten Thousand Things," Maria Dermout describes a funerary rite from Indonesia.

The body is carried out to a ceremonial proa (a kind of galley with an outrigger and sails like wings). Family and loved ones gather in the water. The proa will sail to the other side of the horizon, where the rowers will bury the body on an island, if there is one, or at sea.

As the rowers prepare to sail, everyone sings a long, ancient song of the "Ten Thousand Things." It is a litany of everything and everyone that the beloved had ever known, which they sing so that s/he will remember them when their journey ends. As Dermout describes it, it's a deeply moving experience, sung to the rhythm of the lapping waves and the muffled drumbeats from the proa's musicians (who set the pace of the rowers), improvised specifically for every person. In colonial times, the songs had to be sung very softly in the middle of the night, so that the Dutch officials and the missionaries wouldn't get all imperialistically peeved.

Recently, I witnessed a death at work. A client had been smuggling drugs onto the floor, and he overdosed early one morning, just as I was coming on shift. The paramedics were already there and working to save him, and they worked for over half an hour, but his lungs had filled and he was gone.

As I helped the medical examiner search the room and the body, I couldn't stop looking at his face, masked by breathing tubes, tape and frantically placed IV lines. The caked blood looked like scratches of dark dirt, not the rich red stuff of life. I had known this man--not well, and not for long, but he had kind eyes, and spoke softly, walking the floor with a distant and distracted look, like he was hardly there. Save for that last bit, this body bore no resemblance to the living man I'd known.

When my Grandpa died, I'd watched the death happen, felt the pulse fade, watched his eyes dull and his cheeks drain of color. I was able to see the operation of Death that transforms us, so that the living person I'd known and loved did remain alive in my heart and my memory, while this physical person became an object, a relic, truly detached from the identity of the person. Seeing this actually happen in front of me unmasked the exoticism of Death--I do not fear what I have seen and held in my hand, felt with my fingers and my heart. Even if it is inevitable, and will come to me, too. Because I am convinced that it cannot touch the Ten Thousand Things. I am convinced that my Grandpa was not the one whose cheeks yellowed, whose skin turned cold and waxy; I am convinced that he, and the one with the kind eyes and the faraway voice, had already left for the island beyond the horizon when their bodies became objects and messy relics.

So now I can say 'death' knowingly, and without the capital 'D'--and this opened my eyes to the immortal part of us all, that soars undying above the stars, as Ovid says.


Originally, I'd started writing this mass e-mail as a means to send you a copy of a picture of me in this year's Bridge Pedal, of which I am always inordinately proud. But in the writing of this, I've come to realize that every one of you are yet another of my Ten Thousand Things, and that I hope to be of yours. I hope you do not mind too much the mass sending. Please accept my thanks and affection, as this continues to be a long and difficult piece for me to process, and I could not write through this without you. By way of thanks, below is a link to an image of transient earthly glory and triumph.





A__ speaks a bit like Eeyore, if Eeyore were somewhere between forty and sixty, has been sleeping on sidewalks for most of the last decade, and has a drooping salt-and-pepper moustache that frequently slips into his mouth like a wet, stringy mop.

"We-e-ell, su-u-ure, Paul, I can do that, I gu-e-ess."

It kind of breaks your heart to have to ask this guy to pee in a cup in front of you, but that's a routine part of his treatment program, and he doesn't really mind since he doesn't get an opportunity to use drugs while staying here, anyway, so for him--as for most of the men on the floor--the routine urinalysis test is little more than a nuisance.

But asking any grown man to pee in a cup in front of you can be a humbling experience, for all parties involved. In this culture, it is unseemly to witness another person's bodily functions. It's rather a transgressive act, it makes you aware of the fragility of our pitiful physical substance, it's a forced intimacy, it's cooties for grown-ups.

My job is like managing an oversized kindergarten class with much, much higher stakes.

A___ looks at me with pointedly sad, sheepish eyes, hides his hands in his pockets and shuffles along behind me.