dear prudence

sauna

The wood-fired sauna in the woods is really a kind of converted garden shed. You get to it by driving north through a few small towns, over narrow, single-lane bridges, and in winter, past the smoke-billowing, Christmas tree-lit ice-fishing camps perched on the frozen surface of the Abagadasset River. Inside, past a small living-room decorated in a rustic Japanese style, is the sauna itself: two rows of wooden benches, a cold-water shower stocked with a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s All-One Magic Soap, a kitchen pot for dousing, and the source of the healing heat, the stove: a rock-covered black metal box so hot it glows red like a tiny sun in the soft light of the room. Outside there’s a small flagstone patio roofed with lattice and crawling vines where you can spend a few moments cooling off in the freezing night air before entering the hot tub. While warm, blue-lit water purrs around you, you can look up to see the Three Sisters gazing back from across the light years. A small metal bell, jostled by the wind, rings softly. All this, naturally, while wearing absolutely nothing at all.

The subject of human nudity is a tricky topic. When we sometimes ask friends to join us at the sauna, most will ask if they have to be naked. We always say they don’t have to be, but we will. This, simply put, freaks people out. Thanks to a toxic, particularly American cultural combination of Puritan heritage, childhood trauma, and an invasive, almost pornographic brand of capitalism that chops us up into sexualized parts to be sold on the open market, the human body is viewed through two lenses only: lust or shame. In our culture, nudity only equals sex. There is no other reason for getting undressed ever, except to occasionally perform the necessary hygienic ritual of a bath or a shower. Otherwise, for the remaining 99.9 percent of our lives, we stay clothed and protected from the gaze of others, even until death, when the last people to see us naked are not our partners or our spouses or our lovers or our friends, but our doctors and morticians.

For many people, this is an acceptable math. But I guess I would suggest there’s a third, better way to view the body, one not based on either lust or shame. And that is just as the thing that it is; a body. Our single, absolute possession. The only thing that, while we live, can never be taken from us. A vessel for our consciousness. A miraculous web of cells and chemicals and star-stuff that carries us through our lives, but ultimately is nothing special. The nonspecific fact of our bodies is in fact what makes them so special. As a Zen master used to say; you and I are both the same, but I’m not you and you’re not me. Once you get over the shock of your own nakedness, and you see others as they actually are in all their lumpy, wrinkled, sagging yet beautiful glory, you realize that our individual bodies are just the varying expressions of our essential unified humanity. The expressions of which can be best felt naked in a wood-fired sauna with people you love, or sitting in a hot tub gazing up at the stars on a cold winter night while you laugh, and talk, and share stories about what makes this single human life so fleeting and so precious.

Plus, it just feels good.

 

 

little rituals

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Winter keeps me indoors, dreaming of pond swims or trips to the beach. Except for a predictable work schedule I’m never busy, which means I’m alone most of the time. I’m not much for large group activities, and it’s hard for me to manufacture enthusiasm for things I don’t like. I don’t think this is snobbery; it’s just who I am at 52 years old. The Greeks advocated knowing thyself, and at a half-century on this rainy, stony earth, I’m approaching satori. The plain, the dull, the common. The things most people don’t notice or find boring. The most exciting thing I do most days is make coffee.

And yet, despite my introversion and tendency to sulk indoors, I do dream of community. I dream of taking care of people, of being generous with my time and labor. I dream of buying a small piece of land in the forest and building a wood-fired sauna. I would become a caretaker of sorts. I would chop and stack the wood for the stove. On cold nights, I would arrive a few hours early to build up the fire. I would sit with my thermos and wait for the sauna to reach the perfect temperature. I would fill a small wooden bucket with water and hang the ladle on the hook on the wall, for those who wanted a little steam. I would light tea candles and invite my friends. You can see the path through the trees from here.

It would be a dark, cold night and all the stars would be out. We would sit in the wood-scented warmth and laugh and tell stories. We would let down our guard, becoming open and vulnerable to each other and so become even closer in our friendships. If we got overheated, we could always jump in a snow bank or take a plunge in a nearby stream. After, we would bundle into our clothes and enjoy a simple meal or a walk in the woods under a full moon, silent in our wonder at the fact that we were alive and together at this precise moment in time. The simple elements. Water, fire, and these fragile human lives.

When I was younger I used to float in the pool or in the ocean for hours, skin wrinkling and shivering. I never wanted to leave the beach. I wanted the day to stretch forever, because no matter how long it lasted, it was never enough time. I was trying to get close to something that always put up barriers. Trying to cross that divide between my tiny individual self and body and the body of the universe. I’m still trying to cross barriers and stretch time. I swim in the pond well past the time most people go in, or in conditions that are far from perfect. I swim on hot days, cold days, rainy days. Rainy days are actually the best time to swim because the rain keeps the beer drinkers and the teenagers at home. Only the mad ones swim in the rain.

I suppose these two things I’m talking about, water and fire, are to me what the bog was to Thoreau. It’s as close to nature as I can get without becoming a tree or a rain cloud.

I imagine that someday I actually will become a tree or a rain cloud, although I might not be aware of it. Right now I’m trying to cross barriers without relying on technology or data or algorithms. I’m dreaming of creating the kind of community that existed before bowling alleys and shopping malls. When we slept in caves and all we had to worry about was the next meal. Where the dogs we kept weren’t for pampering but for keeping us alive by warning us of approaching predators. When all we possessed were a stone knife, some cooking utensils and our own bodies.

In the meantime, I’ll still keep practicing my little rituals. Since I can’t live everywhere at once, I’ll make do with where I am right now. I’ll get up every morning and make the coffee. I’ll spend time with family and friends. I’ll read my books and draw my little pictures. I’ll go to the sauna at the Y when the real sauna isn’t available. And I’ll dream of becoming the caretaker to a small tribe of wild, kindred souls.

So if you see a warm glow through the trees at night, smell the woodsmoke, and hear the laughter, you’ve arrived. And you’re very welcome to join us.

krishnaji and me

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When I was on vacation on a small island in Maine, I came across a book called One Thousand Moons: Krishnamurti at Eighty-Five. It is a beautiful book of photographs, long out of print, of the great teacher at work and at rest in California, England, and India. I knew the name of J. Krishnamurti, but hadn’t ever read his books or tried to understand his thought. This changed a few days ago, as I began reading his books and biography. Now I’m immersed in his elegant, subtle and sometimes difficult teachings, which has had an impact on my own thoughts and writing. Here is a man who thinks like I do, or at least I complement myself by thinking so. Like the Buddha, when I read his words or listen to his talks, I say, “Yes! That’s it! That’s what I’ve been thinking all these years but haven’t been able to put into words.” Well, today I tried just that, and here’s what I came up with:

Really, there’s not that much to do.

We don’t like to be told this because most of us measure our worth in being busy, in having responsibilities. But where do these responsibilities come from? Where does this busy-ness come from? From society, we say. I’m forced to do these things, we say. But no. We have chosen these responsibilities, this busy-ness. We stay busy because if we were to cease our busy-ness we would be forced to confront the emptiness of our own selves. We find purpose in action. We try to lead meaningful, productive lives, contributing to the good of society with our labor and our political activities. We try to make the world a “better place.” In reality, we are acting a role. Millions of years of evolution, and we have come to this.

The world economic system that exists today gives us the illusion that we have more choices than ever. And that through this multitude of choices we can find ever-increasing happiness. But actually we are more constrained now than we have ever been. Because the deluge of choices and information that is presented to us now actually dims the true light of wisdom that is within us. We believe we need to listen to the experts to tell us what to do, where to go, what to eat, what to read and see, and how to believe. This is the trick of every organized religion. This is the trick of the priest and of Oprah: that someone knows better than us. That by aligning ourselves with a specific belief system, by following the advice of this or that guru, we can finally achieve lasting happiness. Buy have any of us ever found that to be true?

Look at religion. Are religious people happy people? Does following the edicts of this or that faith or this or that messiah make anyone truly happy? Or instead does it lead to the gaping divisions between human beings that we see today, and that have in fact been going on for centuries? Our distant ancestors may have killed each other over territory or food, but never over ideas like we are doing today. We human beings nowadays are killing each other over ideas in our minds that we attach to as truth but which have no basis in fact in the real world as it is. We say that if only society would change, then we could be happy. But society has been created by human beings. All that we are as humanity up to this point has been the creation of human beings. There are no other forces outside of our own selves that have done this to us. We are in this position because this is what we’ve created.

People say, if only there was peace in society or in my immediate surroundings, peace with my job, with my boss, with my parents, with my children, then I will have peace in my life. We want everyone else to change to make our own lives peaceful, but that will never be the real solution. We can never change the world, only our reaction and relationship to the world. Buddha understood this. We hold this notion that we are making slow and steady progress towards peace. Our political leaders say this. They have signed some agreement, this country has given up nuclear weapons manufacturing, some religious figure gives a sermon, prizes are given, scholarships and grant money distributed, students go to work overseas on their summer breaks, building hospitals and homes for the poor. Progress!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with building homes for the poor. But these acts alone won’t create peace, won’t solve the crisis we are in. Only a revolution in our own consciousness, in the way we relate to one another, without beliefs, without dogma or political ideologies, only then can we perhaps find peace. Because within each of us, beyond thought and opinion, beyond notions of right or wrong there exists a reality that is not dependent upon individual wants and desires. It is mystical and subtle, not easy to grasp. It is truth, but it is ever-changing, ever-becoming. We discover it only in relationship to the world and to one another.

When two human beings, without ideas about each other, truly communicate with one another, and by communicate I don’t mean talk and nod “yes”, or shake their head “no”, or think of how they are going to respond before the other person is even done speaking, I mean communicating with their whole being and all their senses, meeting the other person as a brand-new being, as perhaps the first person on Earth, only then can we even begin to see our life for what it really is and begin to treat one another as human beings and not just as a means to our own individual ends or our own individual happiness.

Other people don’t exist to make us feel good. Please remember this. First we must let go of all we have learned (not forget it, mind you, no one is asking you to forget arithmetic or how to drive a car or how to cook noodles), but to keep our learning at a distance, to know it’s there but not to allow our learning to come between us and the other, to not allow our ideas about the other to color our interaction with them. This is very hard to do.

Before we even meet people, we’ve already made up our minds about them. Especially people we already know. We say, oh, that person is kind, that person is mean, that person is always insensitive or hurts me with their words. That person is needy, that person is selfish. As soon as we think these things, we negate any possibility of meeting the other in a place of true compassion and love. We create a legend about the other and so believe the legend we have created.

Attaching to beliefs as if they are truth is our downfall. So, the question is: how can we free ourselves from our beliefs so that we can meet the other in right relationship? I don’t have the answer. I’m just asking the question.

This is what I’m thinking about today.

grateful

rich

I took this photograph on July 4, 1989 at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, NY. I was standing on the infield with my sister and some friends when the show started. The first song was Bertha. If you enlarge the photo (which is actually a photo of a photo) I swear you can see Jerry Garcia smiling.

These were the post-coma years, when the Big Man had lost some weight, was eating better, smoking a little less, and feeling and sounding energized and happy to be playing. Watch the video below (I’m the dude in the red bandana) and you’ll hear that his singing was stronger than ever and his guitar solos, as he played his beloved “Tiger,” were joyous and ripping. It’s hard to think, seeing and watching this vibrancy, that in a few years he would be hooked (again) on the heroin that sent him into rehab in California, where he died of a heart attack in his sleep (with a smile on his face, his family said) on August 9, 1995. His body looked a hundred years old, but he was only 53.

I could never claim to have been a real Deadhead. In fact, true Heads might call me a Touch-head, that certain brand of fan who only got on the bus after their 1987 mega-hit “Touch of Grey” went platinum. The truth is, I discovered them around 1982 when, attending an all-boys Catholic prep school, I read in the school newspaper that a poll of the students found that the Grateful Dead was the most popular band. Other bands that made the top ten were The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Stones, and The Beatles. Clearly, these kids had older brothers. The name scared me: I thought they were a death metal band. How wrong I was when I started listening to their albums: Dead Set, American Beauty, Workingman’s Dead. This was psychedelic American jazzgrass, ancient and modern at the same time. The music, unlike so much of the punk and New Wave I was into, made me smile.

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Still, I never followed them, never saw more than one show in a row, and only went to concerts that were in easy driving distance of wherever I was living at the time. I saw them maybe three times in Buffalo, a few times at old Silver Stadium in Rochester, NY and maybe a few times at RFK stadium in Washington, DC, I think. I can’t really remember, not because of the drugs, which I never took, but because all this happened about 25 years ago. When you grew up where I did, in upstate NY in the mid- to late Eighties, you knew if it was summer, the Dead would eventually roll through. I grew my hair long and dabbed patchouli oil behind my ears. I traded tapes in parking lots, listened to their New Year’s Eve broadcasts on the radio, ate yummy veggie bagels sold out of plastic bags and bought tie-dyes made by fellow travelers who were just trying to get enough cash to get a little further down the road. Even more than the music, which was joyous and soul-stirring, was the feeling of love and community I felt when I was in a crowd of fellow fans. Maybe we were all like dogs, who can only hear things at higher frequencies, but we knew. We smiled at one another, and we just knew. This was the place for us.

Now, we have the Fare Thee Well concerts on the horizon, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Dead’s founding, in San Francisco in 1965. This, they say, will be the last time the surviving original members will perform together. This August will also mark the 20th anniversary of Jerry’s death. I’m sure I’ll watch at least a few of the shows on pay-per-view, and listen to all of them eventually on CD or through archive.org. But I wanted to do something more, to commemorate and savor this milestone, but to also give back, at least a little bit, some of the happiness the band has given me all these years. So, here’s what I’m going to do…

During the next few summer months, my plan is to make and give away (at least) 50 free tie-dyes. On August 1st, Jerry’s 73rd birthday, I’m going to find a public spot in downtown Bath, and give away t-shirts to anyone who asks for one, til they’re gone. I’m calling my plan Grateful Dyes. I’ll post updates on Facebook and elsewhere. Follow me, and find me on August 1st if you’d like a shirt. 🙂

I’ll never meet the boys in person to thank them for all the joy they’ve given me during my 47 trips around the sun, but I can do this. This is my sunshine daydream.

Peace.

summer plans

me

This summer, I will:

1. Make more tie-dyes. If you want one, let me know.

2. Sit in the backyard, in the sunshine, listening to the Dead. Neighbors beware that 8/27/72 will be set to repeat.

3. Swim in the pond. If you want to join me, let me know.

4. Go to the beach. Target sells spray-on mineral sunscreen now. Thank me later.

5. Spend some down time with the wife and kids on an island off the coast of Maine, where there’s no internet unless you visit the library, no cell service, no television, and a lot less problems.

6. See family and friends near and far, both here and there.

7. Take photographs. Maybe paint and write.

8. Ignore the scoffers and the internet shamers.

9. Avoid commerce.

10. Not listen to the experts.

11. Drink my berry/kale/chia smoothies and do my barefoot running and yoga.

12. Create my own life. Do good not by politics but by being myself.

just-do-not-hed-2015

shorts story

casual-mens-shorts

Winter is over. I mean, I just moved my snow shovel into the shed from its permanent place on the porch, so it has to be. Right?

I raked the crud out of my front lawn, straightened the stakes in my side yard that support my anemic rose bushes, swept the salt and sand off my sidewalk, filled the bird feeder. In the process I discovered the first green shoots of spring forcing their way upwards through the muck. So naturally my thoughts turned to summer and my annual struggles with wardrobe selection.

As I started my research on this post, I searched the internets for complementary images of men wearing shorts. I couldn’t really find any. Most of the pictures I found made the models wearing said shorts look about as sexy as partially-shaved albino gorillas. See above.

The great wit Fran Lebowitz, in a recent interview with Elle Magazine, lambasted the modern development of men wearing shorts in public. I was alerted to this article by my favorite podcart of all time, TBTL, of which I’ve posted about here and here. I have to say, after reading what she said, I kind of agree with her. The entire interview is worth a read, but I’ll just quote her here on the shorts issue:

“I have to say that one of the biggest changes in my lifetime, is the phenomenon of men wearing shorts. Men never wore shorts when I was young. There are few things I would rather see less, to tell you the truth. I’d just as soon see someone coming toward me with a hand grenade. This is one of the worst changes, by far. It’s disgusting. To have to sit next to grown men on the subway in the summer, and they’re wearing shorts? It’s repulsive. They look ridiculous, like children, and I can’t take them seriously. It’s like any other sort of revealing clothing, in that the people you’d most like to see them on aren’t wearing them. And if they are, it’s probably their job to wear them. My fashion advice, particularly to men wearing shorts: Ask yourself, ‘Could I make a living modeling these shorts?’ If the answer is no, then change your clothes. Put on a pair of pants.”

As a man who has for years unthinkingly worn shorts during the warmer months, I believe it’s time for a change. I’m going to try a little experiment this summer. I can’t guarantee success, but here goes: I’m only going to wear shorts when I’m: 1. exercising, 2. at the beach, or 3. home when no one is looking.

Living by these simple sartorial rules will make it so much easier to decide what to wear every day. I already have an extensive collection of pants, t-shirts, and low-cut Pumas. I won’t need to feel self-conscious about my pale legs. I’ll save on pedicures. I’ll never have to put away the “winter stuff” and dig out the “summer stuff.” Like Einstein and his daily white shirt and gray trousers, I won’t have to think about my wardrobe and can instead just concentrate on the fun things like playing the guitar, listening to early Sabbath, and writing inane blog posts. And since my legs do look like those of a partially-shaved albino gorilla, I’ll be saving everyone else a ton of grief.

Last point I’ll make: I’m supported in my decision by all the greats. I have a feeling that Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and David Bowie never wore shorts unless they were in a swimming pool. And maybe not even then.

I’ll go with greatness. And go easy on everyone else’s eyes.

enough

dock

I wake at 4:15 every weekday morning. I creep downstairs and plug in the coffee. I check my email and social media, make sure my swim bag is packed, get dressed, drink one cup of black coffee, then unplug the pot before leaving for the YMCA.

I pull into the parking lot at about 4:50, in time to see the older couple, the man with a cane and the wife with a walker, push through the front doors. I turn off my music, lock my car, and go in. I slide my card through the reader, a computer beeps somewhere, I say hi to Doug or Crystal or whoever is working the front desk and has been kind enough to get up even earlier than me to make sure the lights are on, the door is unlocked and the pool cover is off. I use the boys locker room instead of the men’s because I like the cool tile floor instead of the carpet in the men’s room, and because I can be alone with my thoughts, change into my swim things at my own pace, not have to jostle with anyone for locker space, and can hear all the groans, clanks, and scuffles as the building comes to life.

I shower, walk into the men’s locker room to make sure the sauna is turned on, then wait for the click of the deadbolt when the lifeguard unlocks the door to the pool deck. I see the morning regulars, pull on my swim cap and goggles, get into to the pool and do my laps, usually splitting them between breaststroke and freestyle. I swim for about twenty minutes. I don’t count my laps. I swim until I feel done, then I get out and sit in the sauna for about ten minutes to stretch out and relax. I shower, get dressed, drive home, sometimes stopping to take pictures of the river if the light is right. I get home around 6:00.

I make sure my daughter is up and getting ready for middle school. I plug the coffee maker back in and make my breakfast, usually eggs over easy with toast or muesli. I drink another cup of black coffee. I have an hour before I have to get dressed for work, so I read or do some writing. Around 7:00 I get dressed and drive my daughter to school. I get to work around 7:30, and usually have all my emails read and answered by 8:00 when the rest of my co-workers start arriving. I grab more coffee and fill my water bottle. I have the whole day ahead of me. I help people: students, faculty, co-workers, parents, customers, vendors, delivery drivers.

Most of my work life consists of being the arbitrator of other people’s desires. I measure other people’s wants against my own, and then decide how best to proceed. I do the best job I can with the materials at hand. I subjugate my ego.

I eat my lunch at a regular hour, sometimes treating myself to a soft-serve or a lemon square afterwards. I walk around the campus, deliver packages to the mail center, stop in to the library to see what’s newly published, sometimes I meet faculty or associates on the quad and chat with them, ask after their research, their kids, what they did on sabbatical, what they’re working on now. I’m pleasant, witty, always professional.

In the afternoons I might write some emails, deal with problems that have crept up. By 5:00 I’m ready to go home. I try as best I can to leave the troubles of my workday behind me. At home I help my wife shuttle kids to and from sports practice and games, make sure there’s food for dinner, give homework help, make sure cellphones are charged, forms are signed, teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, and bedtimes happen at a reasonable hour. Then I read a little more, or paint, or maybe edit some pictures I took during the day. I make sure my swim trunks and towel are dry and I re-pack my swim bag, set up the coffee maker for tomorrow’s coffee, place all the things I’ll need in a pile by the door: my bag, wallet, keys, glasses, clothes, flip-flops, iPod.

I’m in bed by 10:00 to sleep for tomorrow’s new day. This is what I do. On Friday nights, I go the local high school football game, if they’re playing at home. I do some yard work on the weekend, do laundry, shop for groceries, go to the beach or for a run or for a swim if there’s time. I take my kids where they need to go, or if they’re travelling by bike or by foot, make sure they check in when they get there. On Sunday nights, my wife and I might turn on Netflix and watch whatever series we’re currently hooked on.

At forty-seven years old, this is my life right now. A Zen archery master, Awa Kenzo, wrote, “Do your best at each and everything.  That is the key to success.  Learn one thing well and you will learn how to understand the ten thousand things.  Ten thousand things are one; this is the secret place of understanding you must find.  Then everything is mysterious and wonderful.”

I submit to you that all we need try to do is one or two things well. We live our life, we remain present and cheerful, we make the coffee, we wash the dishes, we fold the laundry, we sleep, we wake. This is all we need to do. Please take comfort in knowing that it is more than enough.