≡ Menu

Narrative is What Comes After


Summer – one of our Buff Orpingtons – peeking out of the nest box . . . They can be very secretive and possessive when laying . . . I think it’s silly but Chrisoula says that as a woman and a mother, she gets it . . .

When we dream at night, our dreams are essentially images to which we respond in a felt, an emotional way. We may have a sense of time and, by extension, cause and effect, but generally we are simply tumbling through jumbled if moving imagery.

Narrative is what comes after. When we wake up, or as we ascend through sleep back to waking, narrative emerges. We look back – in time – at the dream, its spill of scene and picture, and impose meaning on it. How do we do this? By making a narrative through what is basically a kind of recitation. We literally recollect parts of the dream and string them together in an order that makes intuitive sense. And then we talk about it, or think about it. We relate it to other dreams, to ideas, to events and people and so forth.

The point is that the dream is a vital thing – energetic, rich, moving and so forth. And the narrative or meaning we attach to it is not the dream. It does not inhere in the dream. It is something else entirely. It may be valuable or helpful or insightful – and it may not be – but it’s not the dream.

The suggestion I want to make is that our waking lives are like this, too. That is, we are having an experience that is vibrant and rich – full of images and sounds and smells and this and that and so forth – but meaning does not inhere in it. Meaning is what we give it subsequent to our experience of it.

If we give attention to our thoughts we can see this happening, or sense it maybe. There is a little gap, a little – a barely perceptible – space between our encounter with the maple tree, or our neighbor, or the fresh-baked pizza and our ideas about those things, the story we tell about them, the meaning that we are giving them.

The meaning of life is simply a thought that is always just a hair’s breadth behind life itself.

In an important sense, there is nothing wrong with this. It is important to see that so we don’t get too worked up about it. We’re not bad, we’re not doomed, we’re not broken. We evolved – our brains evolved – over millions of years to think this way. The problem is that we don’t know it’s happening. We don’t “see” the way thought is always reactive – always coming in after the fact to tell us what the fact is.

And that is all the separation from God – if you want to use the G word – is. Reality is what is and we mistake our thoughts about what it for what is. Our thoughts are not the problem. Our belief that they are real is the problem.

We have to become aware of how the imposition of meaning is not meaningful in a helpful way, and we have to see that we are responsible for doing it and – critically – for not doing it.

This was what the writer and psychologist James Hillman was getting at when he talked about avoiding interpretation of dreams by letting our dreams interpret us. As soon as we impose meaning – usually through narrative – onto life, then we are no longer looking at life, or the dream, or the image. Why? Because now we have donned the lens of interpretation and our seeing is affected. We’re looking at the interpretation of the thing, not the thing itself.

In order to see reality, we have to become aware of how we are interpreting life. We have to become aware of how the imposition of meaning is not always helpfully meaningful, and we have to see that we are responsible for doing it and – critically – for not doing it. We have to make a commitment to refusing to indulge the habit of believing our interpretation of reality rather than simply allowing reality to be as it is. Then we can make skillful – real – decisions about what to do, what to avoid doing, and so forth.

A Course in Miracles calls the unfettered perception of reality “the peace of God” which is the helpful alternative to dreams (or illusions) which is what we get when we confuse our personal thoughts about reality for reality.

We want the peace of God. This is no idle wish. These words do not request another dream be given us. They do not ask for compromise, nor try to make another bargain in the hope that there may yet be one that can succeed where all the rest have failed (W-pI.185.7:2-5).

This is hard to do because it is unfamiliar. It is like suddenly going vegan after a lifetime of meat and dairy: you feel deprived, cranky, unbalanced, pitiful. And it is also like driving a new way to work – for your whole life you’ve been driving down Elm Street and now you are driving up Main Street. It feels wrong and you forget and turn down Elm and you have to remind yourself which way to go and be very attentive. We are built – we have evolved – to slip into habitual patterns. Waking up is seeing this and choosing to no longer do it. We aren’t free when we’re conditioned.

So my practice of A Course in Miracles isn’t really about the course anymore. The course is a helpful scaffolding but really, you reach a point where there is nothing left but the application. This is what the course is getting at when it assures us that if we are sincere in our desire for God’s peace then “the means for finding it is given, in a form each mind that seeks for it in honesty can understand” (W-pI.185.6:2). When you’re ready to work it, you’ll see that life – your life, right now, just as it is – is nothing but the means by which to learn how to love.


The main trail bisecting our 25 acres. It is an old logging road we’ve been clearing over the summer, while adding smaller – subtler – trails stemming off it into the deep forest.

In this case, for me, the form arises from the accumulated wisdom of certain writers and thinkers that I’ve clumsily stitched together over the years into a quilt that is finally sufficient to cover me and my assembled beloveds and allow for a warm and helpful, for a fructive. rest. I am talking about Emily Dickinson, James Hillman, Thomas Merton, Thoreau, David Bohm. I read and read and thought and thought and wrote and wrote for decades and then slowly – over a period of a few months this spring and summer – the curtains parted as if by a breeze not of my own making. “Oh, so this is what I’m supposed to do.”

And then you do it: you bring A Course in Miracles, if that is your path, into application because now you know how. Your life becomes a simple presence that “acknowledges illusions are in vain” and thus allows “the eternal in the place of shifting dreams” (W-pI.185.7:6). It’s all there is – and ever was and ever will be – and at last – mirabile dictu – it is enough.


Shoveling Ash Into the Garden

Oh how blue the stars are just before three a.m., and how lovely the sound of the cold wet grass of the fields through which you walk with the dog not talking.

Be attentive to what calls on your attention, and allow it to speak to you in the language it chooses.

A little moonlight through curtains, a little shiver between blankets.

And her shoulder, and the way she smiles when you enter the room, and the sound her shirt makes as it falls to the floor.

The brook rushes through darkness with no consideration for who owns the land.

Writing so flush you forget to drink your coffee and it goes cold and you reheat it, staring out the window, emptied of sentences which is always the only real joy.

Oh and also how hungry some kisses are, suggesting that sometimes our real desire is to utterly consume – to bring to conflagration – the other.

And epistles and the last of the bull thistle and little kids learning to whistle.

My uncle’s cane, my father’s watch and my mother’s bible, all on the bedroom credenza, along with a chunky zafu, a folded pink quilt, thirty-seven books (really!), Chrisoula’s latest knitting project, a cheap telescope I bought twenty some odd years ago, a chunk of amethyst – formerly known as my “writing stone” – and a dozen or so pieces of quartz collected from three different locations in Worthington.

All writing is subsequent to what internal impulse?

Note to self: reread Gertrude Stein and buy socks and advocate for the legalization of marijuana.

The man without shoes has always owned shoes in the way that silence and soap are not unrelated.

Landscape is a text is fun to say – and not an unhelpful way to think – but don’t make an argument out of it, don’t try to force it on anyone.

The axe requires attentiveness differently than chainsaws but that’s not the reason I use it: it has to do with what is yielded up in process.

One way to think about anything is this: will it disturb a chickadee?

How east I am, how north!

It appears I’m sleeping in beds again – not just tossing in them until she falls asleep, or making love on them, or (more often) just ignoring them altogether.

Slow is better – while kissing is better – and whispering oh and after bringing her tea and a book.

How happy trees make me, and how I love firewood too, and always have, and also shoveling ash into the garden after, scattering it over the snow, and seeing clearly – not as a matter of mystery – the way this enfolds that becoming this.

If you want to give me anything, give yourself the gift of waking early enough to see how blue the sky is just before the sun rises because that blue is God, that blue is our home together.


The Night Before’s Rain

Around dinner the neighbors settle – traps set, dogs brought in – and a light breeze (redolent of distant flames, burning leaves) – reminds me of the importance of forgiveness.

Soft skies of early September: and dusk: and how I love all cusps, as if only upon them am I truly alive, truly loving.

Without anyone to either restrain me or eat, the dishes pile up: steamed corn, chili fries, sautéed broccoli, rice, fried steak, hot apple sauce, Focaccia, sliced tomatoes drizzled with melted cheddar and pressed basil, and blueberry upside down cake.

The body yes, self-identity not so much.

Stumbling around outside after midnight – double-checking the hen house, pissing near the property line to dissuade predators and in general bleary from too many nights not sleeping yet not forgetting to look up and mumble thanks.

We are not in Ireland but we were once, we were there singing and drinking and riding trains in the darkness, happy as we would not be again for a long long time.

Chrisoula comes in late and we rearrange the blankets and pillows, and the dog gets up and circles and settles, and we have to move our legs to make space, but then it’s okay, it’s more than okay.

One says yes – again – to Roland Barthes and then discovers that he never left but was always here informing and elucidating, which amuses him, and me too, but differently.

“What is it with you and eating pickles with your shirt off?” asks T., who lately has been visiting after dinner, the two of us sitting in the front yard with Mason pint jars of ice and whiskey and a bowl of my pickles, swatting the late summer mosquitoes and talking in the masculine code we are both – in our own ways – trying to place less emphasis on.

Oh fiction, you are always leaving me a little ashamed, a little breathy, a little wondering why I always come back.

Steak fried in butter not oil, with pepper not salt, and allowed to sit a little after on a bed of onions (which, after the steak is removed, should be eaten on crusty bread with Parmesan cheese).

When the going gets tough, the tough bake, or go to movies, or else just sit quietly doing nothing, content to let the going go, as it must, and does, always.

One bear we might see together is Ursa Major, prowling the northern horizon, pulling so many gold lights behind him.

There is a sense one has from time to time that togetherness – right togetherness – might end both war and winter.

Ginger, turmeric and mustard powder mixed with vinegar, heated up and drizzled on the sliced cucumber and onions which, after sitting like that a few hours, gets jarred and stuck in the fridge for twenty-four hours.

A dream of baby turtles, a dream of tents on battlefields, a dream of looking for the ragged sweater I had always hoped to wear when you visited.

That song and no other?

We are neither vanquished nor vanquishing, nor carrying fiddles through the ruined streets of Europe, nor selling our paintings for less than they are worth, just to make a point about commerce.

Is it possible that violence is an evolutionary byproduct of some other – some more functional – selection?

Oh and four turkey feathers on the trail as the sun rose, a prismatic spot of the night before’s rain sparkling at the tip of each semen-colored calamus.


The Sabbath Unabashed

How little there is to say in the end . . .

The salt that so long defined the self – deltaic folds, bloody wounds, battlefield hardtack – at last washes away. One wakes to rain and what will neither be defined nor ignored.

He carries his mug outside – rain drops make tiny ripples in the coffee – and decides against working in the forest. Wordiness is my real love, though others influence the main, the always-emerging composition.

T. suggests I hunt with a bow, given my evolving inclination to use only tools that would be familiar – and instantly applicable – to men ten thousand years ago.

And the rain grows steady, thrumming on the windows where I write.

Last night – wandering around the fields half-drunk and laughing – my breath was visible in reedy moonlight and I thought of when you turned off old televisions the picture receded to a point of blue light I used to study, seeking the precise moment between “it is there” and “it is not there.”

Like sleep?

I said to a student the other day “don’t talk to me like that about Emily Dickinson if you haven’t read all her poems and letters” and she said “okay then – I will read them.”

Look, winter is mostly about knowing how to be warm in the old ways – first, other bodies, second, fire, third, a good blanket, and fourth hot food – soup and bread and – as February deepens into March – melted cheese (make your own with raw milk acquired from a farmer who speaks respectfully of cows).

One never utters a false word about cheese which, like bread, changes the one who makes it. If you can’t eat there and if you can’t slip the clothes off whomever you’re calling beloved there then it’s neither a church nor an altar. Keep the sabbath unabashed!

I have gone farther than anyone I know and the company grows thin indeed. How lovely the mountain when you stop trying to write about it.

And yet. All morning my enemies visit and I see through my perniciousness to what I love and hold so reverent in them and the blessing (which is simply kindness) precedes accordingly. For the first night in I can’t say how long I chose to lay down beneath several blankets, on a sheet, even though my ratty old sleeping bag and the ten thousand stars begging to be looked at were calling me as they always do.

Neither theism nor atheism but something else older even than our sad, our unworkable dream of answers.


Something Readable

I am often sad at how frightened the deer and bear are in my presence, and grateful to moose who don’t seem to pay it any mind. Can you tell what the crow means when you hear its raucous cry?

The moon a blue haze in early autumn clouds, rain moving in from west and slightly north. If you think of our bodies as texts, a lot of so-called problems settle into something interesting, something readable.

Near the corner of Radiker and Old Post Road I eased a baby snapping turtle – barely larger than the fifty cent pieces my grandfather loved – into the tall grass of the cow pasture. We are never done with the image or, if you want to be fancy, with phenomena.

The fantasy in which I write is a kind of sexualized New England monasticism. Last night I cleared a spot in the forest for late fall fires – stars turning circles overhead – and thought of her, again, for whom I am always trying to find just the right word, just the right hymn.

Thought is illusory (which doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful too) and most of what we call “life” or “experience” is thought. The specifically Christian myths are not as fructive as I want them to be, and so often pretend (a form of insistence) they are.

Out near where in summer I spooked three bears working the raspberries it occurred to me I need never think in terms of a crucifix again, preferring as I do a profluent greenery. One needs to understand that “joy” and “happiness” are not the same word (the distinction relates to luck or chance) in order to go beyond where such discernment matters.

I keep deleting the email I write to her, in part because of how she wears a vest, and in part because of my longstanding fear of not knowing the patently obvious. That pile of books does grow taller, doesn’t it!

The silence of just before dawn, then bird song where the hedge is thickest, then the roosters. A certain commitment to perceiving – and being willing to see undone – specialness is not without benefit.

I dream often – not fearfully but attentively, fiercely attentively – of that afternoon about eight years ago when I cut the heads off a couple dozen ducks, allowing only three to live for my daughter, who loved running in the tall grass with them. It is real work suffering a snake to live, writes the man who ought to know.

Please give attention to Dickinson’s devotion to art and don’t be distracted by the gossip, no how matter how the many decades have gilded it. I’m saying there are many ways to clear a field and the one you choose reflects what you have learned – so far – about love.


Recovering the Present Moment


The crumbling stone wall which marks the easternmost line of our larger plot. Mostly forest now, this was once a large sheep pasture.

Essentially, we are recovering the present moment (which is unrelated to chronology). It is a kind of attention to what is without the interference of the ego. The ego, in this case, we might simply call a habit of thinking that is mostly dysfunctional because it cannot discern between illusion and reality and doesn’t know it.

We are confused, is all. And our confusion has deepened to the point where we’ve forgotten we’re confused. A way of thinking – of perceiving – brought us to this point, and we won’t stop or alter it so it goes on. That’s the separation: the repetition of what doesn’t work.

We could say that our internal programming is trapped in what computer programmers call an infinite loop – it just goes on endlessly and unproductively repeating itself, forever in search of a condition it will never find. So the computer freezes, all its resources entangled in a problem that is inherently unsolvable.

A programmer would introduce a “loop counter” – code which instructs the infinite loop to terminate at such and such a point in order to proceed to the next instruction. A loop counter introduces (or reintroduces, really) flow and thus functionality.

The suggestion I so often make here is that we give attention to our thinking, to our patterns or habits of thought. When we do this in a gentle and sustained way, we will perceive the infinite (the dysfunctional) loop and the need for a loop counter of some sort.

If we want to stay close to the language and mythology of A Course in Miracles (which is perfectly reasonable), then the miracle is the loop counter: it is a shift in thought away from the egoic mode towards the Holy Spirit’s (e.g., T-1.30:1-2).

The miracle will arise naturally from attention, in the way that we only have to plant a seed in order for a flower to grow. We aren’t responsible for the growing itself.

“Ego” and “Holy Spirit” in this instance are simply metaphors. There is no ego and no Holy Spirit – there are just helpful and unhelpful ways of relating to thought. Thought, like perception, is natural. The question is one of relationship which is essentially one of attention.

We can understand the nexus between attention and relationship this way: We give a particular kind of loving attention to our children, another – somewhat less intense – attention to our nieces and nephews, and then another reduced kind to our neighbor’s kids, and then another reduced kind to kids on the other side of the world, and then to future generations of kids and so on and so forth . . .

It is helpful just to see the way we prioritize the gift of our attention and how we divide love accordingly. We don’t have to change this; we have to see it. We don’t have to say it’s right or wrong; we have to see it clearly as it is. If any response is called for, then clear seeing will include – will allow for – that response. In a very practical and real sense, it is out of our hands.

So our relationship with thought is like our relationship to children (or other people). We privilege this thought over that one, listen to this thought while suppressing that one. That’s the infinite loop in operation. You can’t use thought to stop it because thought is doing it. If you are hitting yourself with your right hand, you can’t also use your right hand to grab your right hand and stop it from hitting yourself. Thought can’t solve a problem made and sustained by thought.


You can just make out the forest trail here . . . a hint really, more amenable to deer than clumsy bipeds . . . this is the trail that (further up than the picture shows) we have been clearing this summer.

Thus, we allow the miracle – the loop counter, if we find that analogy useful – to intervene on our behalf. The miracle will arise naturally from attention, in the way that we only have to plant a seed in order for a flower to grow. We aren’t responsible for the growing itself. If you are attentive, then miracles will arrive: love and gentleness and happiness will flower in beautiful and generous abundance. See if it doesn’t work that way.

So that is what the present reveals: that is the knowledge it restores to our awareness. Life unfolds, or flows, and we are the unfolding flowing. Sean (or Dad or daughter or Emily Dickinson or whatever) are just names given for convenience’ sake to this or that ripple of the Absolute. When we see this, the pressure of right action or right outcomes dissolves. It is not possible to make a mistake: only to believe that it is possible.


In A Welcome Way

There are mornings when the mist moves in waves, or seems to, across the far field into the maple trees. There are mornings when I am not lost, and there are mornings when I am.

And the goldenrod blooms and grows dull and then sags towards the ground, as all extravagance – which yellow is – must. One cannot long study the rain without seeing the violence inherent in each drop.

Morning passes nearly wordlessly, the dog pacing back and forth, the narrow leaves of the backyard willow fluttering nearly imperceptibly. When will we see at last that there is no prayer but the one prayer and we are it?

“Pigeons are the angels of the city.” How happy I was in those days, writing without any thought of commerce, not exactly content to live in a car, but not needing to change it right away either.

T. brings a brace of pheasants by which I fry in flour and oil and we talk about hunting almost as if we are ready to be done with it. One studies Chopin and their confusion deepens in a lovely, in a welcome way.

A blur of words is never without revelatory capacity, according to the reader’s relationship with longing. I mean an open heart is creative without consideration of that which appears to contain it.

At night I dream of a strange ungulate – with ruby-colored eyes and a rich brown stripe along its side – , whole herds of which move fearlessly through the bracken at the field’s edge, and intuit that their name can only be revealed by my largely silent, largely sorrowful, father-in-law. Sigmund Freud awaits his tea as Keats rethinks his Grecian urn.

Memory is a biological fact, nostalgia a consequence of misdirected attention. Please don’t take up geology without respecting the theology (however misguided) with which it was so long entangled.

One learns to heed the generative impulse as it is – essentially, semantically, fruitfully – God. Disciples of the signifier unite!

There are mornings in which the illusory nature of both resolutions and ideals cannot disturb the flow from which we so briefly rise. I want you to be happy, I write what was given to be written, I drink coffee dosed with whiskey, I pretend the maple trees call me brother and then am not pretending.