Captivity

By the rivers of Babylon

by the rushing waters of Prosperity,
and the mighty flood of Security

there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

At least, we thought we remembered.
We had this picture in our heads anyway,
clear as day
of a world, a nation, a life
permeated with Shalom.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

But then these punk teenagers stole our harps –
plucked them right off the trees!
(Kids these days have no respect for private property.)
And they started singing a new song.

And it reminded us
(some of us, the more honest among us)
of the songs of Zion.
The tunes were familiar,
yet more generous and varied,
and the beat was more ingenious
and insistent.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Then a girl with dark brown skin
said to me,
I will teach your right hand a new cunning.
I will show you how to play this song.

Your tongue can learn to sing this melody.
It does not need to remain
cleaved.

Do not be afraid.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said,
Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
against the stones.

I remember now.
I, child of Edom.
I, daughter of Babylon.
I remember saying “raze it, raze it”.
I did not shout it in the street.
I did not even vote for it.
But I bought in.

“Prosperity, Security.”
I floated along these mighty rivers
untouched by the cries
of the people on the banks.

And now,
as I sit and weep
beside these waters,
I turn to this young girl
and I say,
Teach me.

Three

So far, I’ve lived through three tumultuous seasons
engulfed within the tsunami called conversion.
The first time, that hot and hasty summer of ’99,
I met the Buddha in the form of an exiled monk
who taught me to take refuge in the Triple Gem,
and to confront my anger, ignorance, and fear.
I didn’t know that my ecstasy was fueled by mania;
nonetheless, all of my prostrations were sincere.

The second time, I came home to the Church,
having been astonished by some Arizona Baptists.
When those red Episcopalian doors opened wide,
it felt like coming home. And me? For years I was all in.
I gave myself to God, to the Church, to my church,
until slowly, in the opposite order, they betrayed me,
and I wandered in the wilderness for forty years.
OK – six years staring at my own unkempt backyard.

The third time was long after I had given up, and
it was occasioned by admitting defeat to my friends.
The very moment I told my church I was a nonbeliever,
my atheism was doomed to live no more than a month.
I’m still an atheist – what I’m not is a reliable narrator.
But I’m a queer heathen, given my trinitarian streak.
So yeah, now I call myself a “scientific pantheist”,
and I think we’re all one, and the universe is sacred.

Weird, I know.

The common thread through all of these conversions
is – my God – how I’ve always excessively loved liturgy.
I mean, Tibetan Buddhism is “smells and bells” Dharma,
with incense and chanting, icons and ritual pomp.
And my Anglican church tradition is justly known as
“Catholicism lite”, on account of the litanies and thurifers.
And now? Well, this naturalistic mystic sure does dig
a Eucharistic liturgy or a Vajrasattva purification mantra.

So what’s the unifying thread, making all these motley
pieces of me groove to the funky rhythms of sacrament?
I think it might be emptiness. Because liturgy is poetry,
which is shaped by the space between words, and lines.
To Buddhists, emptiness – shunyata – is the ultimate truth.
To Christian mystics, emptying self reveals God’s fullness.
All this is just crazy philosophy, but in my bones I believe
That the space we perceive between us is actually sinew.

It’s weird,
I know.

enmeshment

when he reached the age of twenty-nine
the shakya prince
with golden skin
and raven hair
threw wide the door
of his jeweled cage
and forever left behind
the entrapment of his birth

so began his deep involvement
with the people
for the first time the prince met
the daughters and the grandmothers
and the small muddy boys

he laughed with them
and cried with them
he touched their sores
and their corpses
and for the first time
the prince knew sorrow
and suffered embroilment in grief

he knew he could not go back
to the palace of ignorance
but nor could he bear
entanglement in this life
of anguish

so the prince sought teachers
to set him free a second time
not from unknowing bliss
but from knowledge of pain
and in each of their teachings
of self-abnegation
he found only further ensnarement

when he reached the age of thirty-five
the shakya prince
with golden skin
and raven hair
sat down beneath a tree
and vowed not to rise
until he had overcome
every trap
and snare
and tangle

and the prince sat
with singular focus
until he could see with utter clarity
the delicate mechanisms
of quantum entanglement
and his own perfect enmeshment
with every other being
in the universe

and the buddha rose
with a smile
and began to teach

behind the waterfall

do you remember the time
when we were simple

we went to the place
back in the woods
behind your parents’ house
where that creek
the one with all the crawfish
rushes down
over jagged rocks

and if you get down low
and make like a caterpillar
who doesn’t mind getting wet
you can wriggle your body
or maybe two bodies
if they are close friends
into the cavelike space
behind the cascade

we did that
me and you
my brown-eyed girl

we slipped and slid
got mud in our hair
messed up our bluejeans
seriously

a broken stick
jabbed you in the arm
it bled a little
but you didn’t care

then we lay down
and cuddled close
in that cool and cozy
damp cocoon

and looking out
we saw golden light
streaming through the fountain
fashioning each droplet
into a tiny prism

rainbow showers
dappling down
over a green canvas
reminding us of verdant life
in the wood beyond

we held each other
in the midst of magic
for a brief forever
until our sogginess
broke the spell

and we squirmed out
filthy hands clasped tight
shining in the summer sun
and ran back home
laughing

driving

ever since i was a child
i’ve been having the same dream

i’m driving
(even as a little boy
i dreamed of driving)
over a suspension bridge
the kind where the road curves up
to a summit
and then back down
to rendezvous with the far bank

except

in my dream
when i reach the top of the arch
i can see
there will be no meeting at the shore

the road ends at a drop
i’m going too fast
and i plunge
screaming
into the cold dark water

over the years
my dream has mutated
and sometimes
rather than a bridge
the highway forms a towering parabola
or a roller-coaster loop
which even the most skillful driver
could not hope to negotiate
without falling
screaming
into the depths

each time i have this dream
it is terrible
and as i see the behemoth approach
my heart is filled with fear
yet i am powerless to turn away

last night
i had the dream again

i recognized the road i was traveling on
i knew well what was coming
yet i was powerless to turn away

i saw the colossal arc of skyway
which i knew
no sane driver
would attempt to traverse

i saw the wave-licked surface
of inky waters below

it was sunny in my dream
a beautiful day
other drivers on this road seemed
unperturbed

it’s always like that
in this dream

and i knew i could not stop
and i could not turn
and i had no choice
but to try and fail
and fall
and die

i was cold

but at the feet of the leviathan
i closed my eyes
and pressed the pedal to the floor
and i whispered a prayer
(though i do not ever pray
like that
i do not pray for rescue)

and then
and then…
i don’t know

my brain moved on
to another province of sleep
leaving me suspended
with hands on the wheel
eyes shut tight
gravity pressing me
compressing me
back into the seat

did i make it?
or did i hurtle downward
to the indigo water
as i’ve done in so many
dreams before?

i don’t know
i honestly don’t know

but i know
that i closed my eyes
and i said a prayer
i pushed the gas pedal hard
and i told my fear

honey
you can have the back seat
this time around
and i recommend
that you buckle up

memoir

i’m a leaf on the wind
watch how i soar

held aloft
for stretched-out seconds
lifted up on frail breezes
little zephyrs made capricious
by new, unforeseen power

by now
my flight should have ended
i should have tumbled
to the ground
and yet, still i soar

but in the end
there is only one destination

fate and gravity agree
there is nowhere else to go
but down

did i know this, as i clung
snugly to my branch
for week upon week
watching spring’s greening
explode all around?

did i understand
as summer’s sun warmed me
and by that kind and shining god
i was lovingly given
my photosynthetic daily bread?

what did i know
while i hung there
absorbing jubilant energy
rejoicing in my kinship
with the community of leaves?

united in our mission:
we feed our tree
we are all one
we feed our tree

what did i think
while i suffered there
absorbing the pain
of late summer and autumn
as nutrients waned
and my lush chlorophyll
gradually vanished?

could i see that this
accumulation of wounds
made me beautiful?

that it pulled to the surface
magnificent colors
that were always there
in potential within me
though i never knew?

what did i think would happen
when i let go?

i don’t know the answers
to these questions
i ask myself
as i soar

i’m just a leaf
a leaf on the wind
drifting finally
necessarily
to earth

these dreams

a moment
thirty years delayed

to the chubby, awkward kid
too smart to be cool
for whom this song
was a first kiss
a first love

thirty years
was twice a lifetime

thirty years
was an age unimagined

thirty years
was a thing unfathomable
known only to the ancients

but to the grown-up me
who experienced
at long last

the flawless woodwind notes
of nancy’s lead vocals

the spooky playfulness
of ann’s sweet harmony

the consummate
otherworldly guitarwork
of the band

to that svelter, still awkward man
standing in the cut grass
standing in the warm dark
standing in ecstasy
thirty years was only

a short climb up the stairs
from the vendors of t-shirts
and frosty margaritas
sipped from the necks
of plastic guitars

to arrive at the top of the hill
and our blanket
thrown on the lawn
far above the crowded
auditorium seats

in the company of dear friends
beneath a rippled sunset sky
like the sky above the fey-lands
or the realm of morpheus

and surrounded by thousands
of fellow travelers
each in their own euphoria

augmented by drink
or weed
or nothing but the night

and surrounded by sound
submerged in waves of music
as the band began to play

and surrounded
after all
by these dreams