“And the emptiness turns its face and whispers ‘I am not empty; I am open.’” —Thomas Tranströmer on Vermeer


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It’s hard to believe but Fox Sparrow says it’s best to fly in the darkness of night. Thousands of miles in just a few weeks. He might already be gone by the time I return.

The birds are named differently here, and are very wary. I follow their calls but cannot see them.

Before the war, some boys went into the forest nearby and climbed down a tunnel in search of a rumored treasure, in the days when one could dream of backyard buried treasure. When they reached the floor of the cavern and raised their lamps they saw a spectacular herd of bison and rhinos and horses running overhead from a time before history, as if it were yesterday. How most treasures are indeed accidental.

There are differences of 2000 years between one painting and another on the same stone wall. And no other change in style of line or pigment. One can compare in contrast how much the same Annunciation scene changes over 300 years. In those paintings, the perspective shifts immensely, as do the colors, and how the bird overhead goes from contour to volumetric realism. But in these caves, the paintings are almost exact, as if done by the same painter, even in caves 400 miles by foot and 20,000 years apart.

Chauvet painting, 37,000 years ago. (Photo by Jean Clotte)

What is more dystopic: life on the freezing tundra on the brink of starvation, living to kill by rudiment tool; or our tired, cynical eyes fixed trance-like to LED screens, where an unmanned drone can drop a bomb on a coordinate, our own child’s life. 20,000 years in between us and us. It is an impossible stretch to imagine a bison or wooly mammoth in this over-farmed field in front of me, but the painters were us, after all. We share some deep part of humanity, maybe if only just the underground place where we go momentarily to dream. And what is there for both of us is those paintings.

Nearby, I saw her there, in her medieval castle home of 30 years, because she found a way to never leave. Even if she had been a starlet and philanthropist, her money had been drained and they dragged her away from her castle at the end of her life. There is a photo of her in that moment, sitting on the ground of the porch like a beggar, with a few belongings and some bottles of water. It was her fall, but also her protest. Because even to the end we made her perform, the exotic caged bird, singing and dancing, sometimes to our low tastes. The castle feels spent now, as if folded up after an epic performance, breathing only memories of the high days of celebrity-filled theatres, greying sequin gowns, and used toys from a line of adopted children (where did they go?). Eventually, the princess offered her a new home, and Jackie O funded her final farewell/revival show (those women understood), then she died a few days later. In Paris. But for now she prevails in that castle. Not unlike an outline of a gorgeous creature fading on an exposed cave wall.

It didn’t ring while I was here, a small 9th-century bell on the ceiling of a chapel carved into the rock of a cliff. The chapel could seat maybe 30, but receives innumerable pilgrims, for a thousand years now. Some climbed the long stairs on their knees, as if life itself weren’t cut and bruised enough. In the dark space, a black virgin carved by a hermit tenderly watches us. And we watch that little bell that is only rung when there is an incontestable miracle. A list on the wall begins in 1385, mostly for miracles at sea. The sea is a fantasy to most who lived here then, 200 miles from this little chapel. And who decided what was deemed a miracle, she asks me. I don’t know but it always involves suffering. And how miracles are also under the auspices of the accidental.

Fox Sparrow

(Fox Sparrow, when I first met him.)

It becomes obvious here that along these little roads and stone villages there are little sauvage patches of forest left, under which are other undiscovered caves full of prehistoric paintings, so beautiful because they will never be seen. Never to be paraded in front of lustful eyes. Like the birds here who continue to call and flit around, always outside the reach of my eyes.

Darkness, Fox Sparrow says. And I believe him, because all of this unfolds when words fail to contain it. How far these little words go though, sore and tired pilgrims of the darkness, in search of the miraculous.

“The true entrance into us will not occur by an act of will.” George Steiner





“That of a bird floating on the wind without moving its own wings, that of a bird which is flown by the wind.” Zeami, 15th Century


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It’s a flagrantly irreverent kite, as it dances a silly jig back and forth, fancy-free and a mile high in the gray sky. Shadows of swallows and swifts dart all around, you can’t much see them but can feel them hurling by just inches away.  All this high above a green river, slicing through a narrow forest, carving into the dead center of city. Just a concrete bridge, an updraft, and an insect haven for the evening hunger.

Yes but I’m not happy, he says in broken English, laughing only a little. Because even though it is a plastic-blue-Walmart-superhero kite, this is serious.

You have eagle eyes, he adds, as I point out to him where in the forest the string has hitched itself. Although I side with the runaway kite, mocking his owner, finding communion with the disinterested birds.

His little boy is concerned as his father sternly reels the string in, the father with one eye on his little boy “Vincent!” who might at any moment fall off the unrailed bridge to the rocky riverbed below.

A gray hawk does some stoic surveillance and disappears. Then a noisy plane above it.

He pulls the string harder and the place in the tree where it is stuck is made clear, revealing our finite and diminished existence. Now caught, the kite flails against certain death, surrounding leaves torn away and falling. It occurs to me this $20 kite battle means something to this man, when my kids lose toys daily without notice. And how this battle now means the world to me.

Suddenly one of the yanks frees the kite from the branches and it soars up again into the sky. He releases a shout of victory like a knight who has slayed the dragon. He retreats back into the city with his child, kite following closely like a dog with a tail between the legs. I laugh.

Then just when the whole sky seemed too vast to embrace our little drama, tiny stabs of rain give their acknowledgement and I start to cry. A mote of beauty in this world. Yet under the same sky where children were torn apart in their school bus by our bomb. The same day the sky gathered the river, made a clearing, and uttered our silently grateful birds.

(Detail from Lorenzo di Credi, The Virgin Adoring the Child, 1490. British National Gallery)
Love by Czesław Miłosz


Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

(Detail, Follower of Joos Van Cleve, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, 1530. SF Legion of Honor)

“Summer’s ardor was confided to silent birds and due indolence to a priceless mourning boat through gulfs of dead loves and fallen perfumes.” Rimbaud


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Fox Sparrow is still here. But I know it’s soon. Almost now.

I have seen bodies float down that river. And I have let them pass, even though they took parts of me, right from the heart.

We stand at the banks, birdwatchers most of us.  An improbable fellowship of a strange generosity. They will run to tell me they just spotted something beautiful and rare, just over there. They delight in sharing stories of the ones they saw many years ago. And I delight in every one with them as if I had been there. How words awaken that. Sometimes a personal story will spill out like a loose feather, like why he remains unemployed. How after her mom died a slow death,  she and her sister call each other about what miraculous birds they have seen that day. One boyish teenage-girl alone for years under a tree told me which of two almost identical species of obscure birds was way up there, just by hearing its call.

Once I walked silently into a group of men bowing their heads crying, their cameras off as if in mourning also. It seemed one of them had been expecting me, because he plainly said that he had accidentally scared a deer into that river over there and it drowned.

Many years ago, he had asked me about Virginia Woolf’s drowning before he took his own life and so I was determined to walk to that river, to see if somehow my response was at all valid.

After a long hike through pastures outside the village, I walked her to the muddy embankment of the brown river running. She has been in and out of my life, even the last few lives too, and when she felt it she didn’t trust it. But there we were. A long curve of river surrounded by lifeless and flattened swales of fields saddled by fog. After a moment of taking in the dull scene, a white thing in the distance pierced through the grey. A majestic swan aflight squeaked its wing feathers in a steady beat, and glided the course of the river past us, down out of sight. Flight and not stones, even if fear changes her mind. The birders among us will understand.

Because this bird knew where I needed to be. In this word. Sometimes I lose my patience with it all, as if I could turn the direction of an entire sentence. But life just runs over my impertinent hands and through my doubtful fingers. And will eventually take her too. And another bird might drift by, or flit onto a branch right here along the way. On its own time.

Like Fox Sparrow who is still here. He knows it is now. He also knows it is not.

(Joan Jonas, performance entitled “Merlo,” 1970’s Tuscany.)

“The birds were fluttering in and out of the open door; the photographs were tumbling over the tables; and, lying before a large open window, Mrs. Cameron saw the stars shining, breathed the one word “Beautiful,” and so died.” — Virginia Woolf.


“With total rapture and delight he talks about the birds which he can see from his prison window, and which he never noticed before, when he was a minister. Now of course, after he’s been released, he doesn’t notice the birds anymore, just as beforehand. In the same way you won’t notice Moscow when you actually live there.” — Vershinin in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.

The power of Art seems to tear up the one experiencing Art, all at once, from the connection of his life, yet at the same time to move him back to the whole of his existence in this world.” Gadamer


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It is almost time for Fox Sparrow to leave.

Yesterday a red cargo ship full of containers from Asia approached our coast. It happened on a glassy, high-blue light day as the Bay Area can be in February, so that even the frothy wakes along the ship could be seen crisply miles away. And how the crew must have seen the land from miles away also, how that green and gray brown alights after a month at sea. The welcome that builds after days of an interminable emptiness on the horizon, in every direction. Maybe a terror of openness, but the warmth of possibility. Lonely yes, but connected to the ocean and the sky, feeding on inward mornings and memory — connected to all things, connected even by our loneliness. To be on an endless sea — yet, as Caroline said, to feel lucky waking in the morning unafraid, to get up with the desire to get up, for another day of open and empty horizons.

After ten epic years at war, and ten more at sea, Odysseus reaches home where no one can recognize him except his dog. He is washed by his childhood nanny, who discovers a scar on his thigh, revealing his identity. His scar is the doorway to homecoming.

How life’s experiences, like words, cut and divide while gathering its skins into a scar.

I hope while at sea, I would delight in the unrepeatable colors, and how ocean water defies all predictable pattern, and what fog can create with light. That I would relish in all the inks and brushes I have, not analyze those I don’t. And maybe there is a bird, the courageously pelagic amongst us. At home without terra firma, the beings of the utmost unhousedness.

Does anyone else wonder where Fox Sparrow is when he is not at my feeder?



(Ma Yuan, Studies of Water, 1190-1224)

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in the sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no rain; without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist.” — Thich Nhat Hanh


No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real; the thread is life. — Loren Eiseley


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I’m sorry to Fox Sparrow. Because the dark became darker, and for primordial reasons no one knows, he returned. How did he reckon with the absence after so many years. His ancestors knew of my frontyard and told him somehow, so that he trusted it as a place for sustenance, to fly thousands of miles for this one square foot of shrub. And one year there was nothing.

Now I return to Fox Sparrow.

The figures on top of the architecture here look down, disdaining on our frenzy. They have stood there so long that no one identifies them, relegated minor celebrities now ignored except by erosion and pollution. Sacred space, he said. What do they say from up there about down here. Fox Sparrow flies over them, and I bustle under them, from one cathedral to another, one painting to another.


(Rimini 1300’s, Padova)

And how thanks can be welcomed now, now long enough on this cobbled plaza to understand most of life is forgettable tasks and losses and then precious bursts of presence.  The self-flight of wanting the outside world to adapt to my needs. When really life is all that I needed, even if I only realize it now, hundreds of years later, says this old dusty part of the world. The other drivers madly suicidal, pressing against an imagined self-important destination. So many masterpieces, they blur.

The sum of history, the robber barons and politicians and corrupters careless in their selfish deals, so that an Angelico or a Bellini could escape. Luckier still that someone noticed something there after the floods and the rot. There is art in there, after all.

That is no way to say goodbye, to be stilled in the instant of loss and mourning. In a back room they discovered his final and unfinished Pieta. Who is holding up who, and whose arm is lifting what. And how it looks as if it could topple at any second.

A flight of memories all of them loving even the cruel ones, thank you. Grief is here, too. He tells me, yes the continual parting from which all thought emerges, but it’s the same place same thing that greets what I hold close to me. Sometimes too long. What breaks the heart is mostly heart. And laughter and flesh and thanks. And sometimes catching the ecstatic edge to all this openness, the immense out there, the terror of all possibility. And then having to pack yet another school lunch.

Our performance, this bird and this life, the reverberation is aliveness. Where the play is the only thing to watch and engage — not the players. If only we let ourselves be forgotten. Then we can return to ourselves, however no longer ourselves, but Fox Sparrow. The unfolding self and an empty tomb, completely miraculous. Empty without obligation.

I’m not a believer in anything except Fox Sparrow.


(Performance, “Annunciation.” From Requiem: Welcome Home to Un-Home, 2017. By Summer Lee)



The Dialogue with the Dead Cannot Stop Until They Hand Over the Future that has been Buried with Them. — Heiner Müller


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I am not ready to talk about their immigrant bones, or the difficult stories that each bone box tells. And besides, most are missing, disappeared on the wayward routes returning home, displaced even after death. Or they are in almost-forgotten fields marked by stones that don’t hold names anymore, nonetheless narratives. Sometimes just numbers, sometimes just the memory held by someone’s grandson who saw him bury them over there under there somewhere. And in there could have been my non-existence. As we peered into one unearthed bone urn, the top exposed to the sky cracked open by neglect, he said, there is the way into the underworld.

I need to listen.

I am aware that each word here is an act of listening, opening a new space for the next word. And of my failings of projections and memory and desire and convention, so that some words spill out overwhelmed by chatter and are already dead. Listening, like love, comprises a reverberation between self and other, where words and acts seem to fall out gracefully and illuminated and are received as a welcomed guest.

“It takes two freedoms to make one.”

Even if my grandmother has been gone for twenty years, she speaks to me in a certain way. When she was here she couldn’t explain anything about her childhood or her crossing to the United States, except that she had a favorite brother who died young, she didn’t know how.

By dint of so many unlikely arrangements to explain here, she brought me last week to a 700 year-old village in southern China. A group of villagers greeted me with their own generous hospitality to take what evidence I had and prove it was her home. Easily, she could’ve been from a village destroyed long ago, or one where no one could help. Instead, she knew somehow. What they wanted of her to want of me to know. So I could sit in front of her burned brick house with the gift of her brother in a bone box of a suitcase I brought from his grave in Chicago. So I could witness as nothing and everything took place. I had given nothing. In a long string of no’s, I just had to say yes.

fra angelico prado 3

(detail from Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, Prado)

They asked me if it felt like my homecoming, and it didn’t. I don’t belong there in any way, or really anywhere these days.  For now, I feel I belong to her retreating voice hurled through different time zones. Or when my sons resign their sleepy bodies near mine. It wasn’t my homecoming but it was his, and hers to give him. At the modest home’s ancestral altar, she had returned her sweet, young brother to where he had just left months before he died, at age 21. He knew of no other home. Even if that year was 1924, it was last week.

In that moment of offering inside my grandmother’s childhood home, and earlier on that slave mountain where we hiked for hours with that suitcase to their humble tombs, I asked about home. The calls of the flightless geese from the farms surrounding the village were deafening. Eventually, I understood that he belongs with my grandmother on her mountain overlooking this ocean. Some migrations are irreversible.

There is a lot of fear in listening, of unanswerability, of surrendering to silences too long to bear. In her words, it is the absence that the child can tolerate from the mother and no longer. It wants to choose a withdrawal into a security rather than the uncertainty of new countries, new losses, a new home. Maybe in those spaces created by fear is where unhousedness began, because security is a delusion we need to rest in.  The beginning lines of a tragedy. But a great awakening is at the bottom of a tragic flaw. Tragedy reminds us of our human dignity, opening us up to all possibilities, whereas fear has us only hear what we don’t want.

In southern China where my grandmother is from, more people have left than live there today. Thousands of years ago, her earliest Han ancestors brought their family bones when they migrated from the north to the south. Still now they practice a second burial tradition, where years after the first funeral, bones are cleaned and moved to an ancestral tomb. During the first waves of overseas immigration, arduous arrangements were made for those who died abroad to have their bones returned to their ancestral villages, tens of thousands of bone boxes crossing oceans and borders. But then history changed and almost all of the bones don’t come back anymore. Some I visited are stuck in transit and have been for a hundred years. The odds they will go back to their ancestral homes are near-impossible, but they are a living-dead memorial that continues to cry out for all of us, I want to go home.


(Bone boxes in Tung Wah Coffin Home, Hong Kong, awaiting repatriation.)

So I can forgive those who won’t go, won’t listen, whether they immigrate or not. They don’t go, because maybe the risk is just too much unknown, too much disappointment, the fear that some pain is bigger than us. The greater the connection, the greater the vulnerability when it becomes absent. When I think of moments when I didn’t think I would survive, I remember the scary way my son was brought into the world, when I wanted to be nowhere near what I was experiencing. After losing a lot of blood, I asked my mom to not let me cross over. I discovered then that the over there is so close. Even though I bore it, it was too much to bear.

An angel appeared soon after and spent time with me.

I expected she would say, oh stop, you weren’t even close to going over.

Instead she said, you were close to there, and you could have gone over. But, she added, I know you would have returned. It wasn’t your time. And it shifted something and the nightmares ended, but I understood. We all have our mundane annunciations.

“The wisdom of love is that it isn’t always safe but it is always truthful.”

All of them, alive or in bone boxes, are telling me stories of un-home and home, and underwriting my own restless search for one. Home is certainly not in these small houses of cautionary being, toppled by each new intrusion of life. If so, my sons would not be here. I wouldn’t be here either, along with all the moments when immense gratitude and beauty overwhelmed me. Home seems to transmute from the relentless feeling of loneliness and displacement. Nathan said maybe we hover home, and reminded me that home, if it exists, enters only in the here and now and leaves. And it does seem to be a here of reception and not fear, even if the guest turns despotic or worse. “But without the gamble on welcome, no door can be opened when freedom knocks.”

Who knows what I will hear next.

In leaving China back to my temporary un-home, I followed her original route over an uncertain ocean. And I could imagine their bone boxes passing, going the other way. They pass by me, holding things I realized I had also lost, maybe continually losing as I keep living, and they are returning to the spaces I just left.

The same man who taught me most directly about tragedy, and therefore the beautiful fragility of presence, gave me a life-long address for this route: In welcoming a guest, you have found your home.

“Such a caring for death, an awakening that keeps vigil over death, a conscience that looks death in the face, is another name for freedom.” — Derrida


Dai Wan Village cemetery, Toisan.

Welcome home to un-home.


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Non Omnis Moriar

The first bird I met here was half-dead. A Cape May Warbler, my first ever. It had collided with a Chicago building like thousands that do every year. It stood frozen still on the rooftop as I toured the 11-story, urban school for my son, as if warning me of the impending experience there. The Cape May is one of five million migrants and dwindling, but in this season, they still show up as clouds on weather radars every evening as they take into the darkness and as they rest to feed by sunlight.

They must survive the buildings, but also the endless Midwest miles of recently invading soy and corn fields, where there is ironically no food for them. They trace along the lakefront, which is where I found my cathedral among the starving and vulnerable. This church is simple, and the faithful are sensitive souls as they gently but enthusiastically ask me, did I see the black-throated blue warbler over there?

It’s true that in the end love is why. And also, as she crystallized in fragile words, nothing brings so much pain as love.

A third of the first shipment of bone boxes from the United States back to China were empty. Most immigrants back then wanted to be buried in their ancestral homes. They were also not welcomed here. Despite vast impoverishment, the family associations made arrangements to clean the bones and ship them on a 30-day ocean journey via Hong Kong, from where they would be delivered into China. The empty ones were soul-summoning boxes, when their were only names, when bodies could not be located. Something had to migrate home.

Some never made it back. Some are stuck in transit, in boxes in a storage house in Hong Kong, where they opened an empty one for me. When I saw it, I cried uncontrollably. And when I came to, I remembered Faure’s requiem.

Some are still waiting in my hometown, like my great grandmother. And here I had thought the Chinese village name on her tombstone was for biographical purposes only. When in fact, like so many others, it is an unkept promise of a more final return home.  No matter how many children they birthed and raised on this soil, the burial here is temporary. Address labels with no postage, the stone mark of their villages is a question mark of an eternally unanswered request, beseeching unwitting visitors, please take me home. The village name, possibly of a village that doesn’t exist anymore, is a way the dead stay alive. Yes, never dead if your progeny visits and honors you. After all, if someone remembers you, you still exist. But here it is not ancestral worship either, just an endless restlessness for homecoming.

(The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, 1425-6)

The neighbor in Chicago to the right voted for Trump and the grumpy one on the left asked to take down my bird feeder because it was bringing woodpeckers to her yard. I never saw a woodpecker at my feeder in California, who knows why not, but there are four kinds here. You wouldn’t understand what it is to stop feeding the birds of my home. There is no one now to track their yearly changes as well as their disappearances. To no longer hear their version of truths about migrations and the space they know between heaven and earth. So I set out to ask the strange birds of my new home.

It is cold and rainy as I hold my camera up to these birds. We join together in the hopeful uplift of these visitors, knowing also they won’t be here much longer. And I realized maybe this is the reason I was brought here, and why I must now live between two homes.

It was also cold and rainy when I found him at the nearby cemetery in an unmarked grave. The Hong Kong assignment led me to review my grandmother’s INS interrogation from 1925. In it, her father describes burning the documents of her oldest brother at his gravesite. To erase any reminder that he had died in Chicago, the year before in 1924, at the age of 21 of a sudden illness that is of poverty. The confused clerk looked at me strangely, the white lady who presented his romanized Chinese name, but soon enough they found him on a hand-written map. Minutes later, the groundsmen took me to a field and paced off the coordinates — and there in the middle of fucking Chicago, I had found his bones.

She said, it’s as if I had to become displaced to find my family.

(In my imagination my grandmother’s family experienced one Chicago winter because thank you god they quickly moved to San Francisco.)

And if you have ever uttered a word thinking your dead would hear, you understand the birds. And you also know that all real happiness sets you on the edge of loss. As Judith and I ended our two hour phone call, a Cerulean Warbler flitted across my driveway. It was here and gone so quickly, it exists in the realm of doubt. But somehow my grandmother knows I am listening.



Even if I don’t see it again – Nor ever feel it
I know it is — and that if once it hailed me
it ever does–

and so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as toward a place, but it was a tilting within
myself, as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where it isn’t — I was blinded like that — and swam
in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.

— Marie Howe

“Philosophy is really homesickness; the urge to be at home everywhere.” Novalis


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(A deconstructed bird nest for a new art project.)

When we turned the car west, the miles of snowy Sierra pines and stone pushed into greenly-wooded foothills and then into rolling brown scrub of the Pacific. Only a few birds can make a home in all three geographies, as most birds are specialists. As we flew along, something was being pulled from the middle of me, the fragmentation that occurs in the process of becoming not at home.

They would hold him there until I could arrive to say goodbye. Goodbye to who or what I am not sure, but we kept on driving because a monument was in the making.

This is what comes to mind right now as the fog is peeling back over my coastal mountains from which my plane is turning on the runway. East-bound, a one-way route.

John Berger says home is the vertical line between the gods and the buried dead. It’s one that can move along the horizontal of human mobility, but he admits some emigrations disconnect. Nomadic tribes no nothing of this. Home travels with them. Birds neither. They build the most tenuous nests for their most profound task.

I have written here before about needing to be at home in the state of unhousedness. When there is an ambiguous loss with nothing to bury, and no effable one to pray to. This of course means that there is so much glory here: laughter that stung my eyes, the epiphany of childbirth, improbable resonances with strangers, friends who are fixtures at every milestone, family there in an instant, and moments when the art came and made me disappear. Not to mention this light off the ocean. And it all is tied to this home.

I met a homelessness back in China several months before I knew of our move. It was there that I discovered something true that I still have no words for. And in this, I found myself lonely. In consolation, the thick bamboo forest offered me a dark and aching embrace, but there was nothing to hold on to. When will I learn that an attachment to loving moments quickly drains them. This resistance is the artist’s mischief and rebellion — to try to extend the present moment, to give presence, to still a nearing god.

That moment in China, as is happening on this plane, something fell undone into her pond with the splash of a thousand fish about to be dinner. She built a life story inside ten kilometers of that pond, and I was from ten thousand kilometers away. The epiphany of scaffolding, smothering beliefs, and cloying security falling away. And resulted in the terror of a new vulnerability and uncertainty. A deepening of the divine recognition of fragility.

I am making this goodbye a self-indulgent monument, lovingly constructed of the small numbers of my childhood address held by the eucalyptus and coastal sage in the evening breeze yesterday. Also the threshold of every door and every word through which I greeted you and you greeted me, in the company of language-less ghosts who don’t seem to age. It leads one to draft absurd postmortem directions for the body, a future tense when I am no longer present, long after the goodbye. Here also are the wounds of possibility.


(Detail from my painting of cremated hummingbird, 2009)

“Inhabit vulnerability as a generous citizen of loss.” David Whyte.

“Only when we learn to transcend our earth-bound selves in love, learn to take ourselves not too seriously, do we begin to truly live.” — Karsten Harries

“Already the knowing animals are aware that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.” Rilke


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In the thicket of wild and obscure feelings, I want to have faith in the art of incantation.  Because I can’t but darken and over-organize the more luminous and playful energies in the inward privacy of a mind, I had stopped for so long.

But now there is so much uncertainty to invite me here.

The first impulse is to eulogize the land. To grieve the coastal mountains where I have lived all my life, now overlooking a sea-change, with only hazy constellations to navigate by.

Then the birds of my neighborhood, who will feed them now? Who will notice when Fox Sparrow arrives in the fall and leaves in the spring? Who will extoll how perilous and brave he is?

And then there are all my life-long loved ones…. And the ones who love my sons. The ones like me who don’t migrate and never have.

A few weeks ago, I was deep in the grand-mother land, under the green mountains jutting up like crowded tombstones in the fog of familiarly foreign languages. On one clear day I asked her about the lightening and thunder, and she said no, they are bombing the mountains to make way for roads.

I watched the locals prepare for Ching Ming, as I headed home. How it is that the snap of fireworks can cleanse the space of the afterlife. And yet the ways we keep the never-aging dead here with us. Along a new freeway — more of a battlefield than a road — I passed one ancient mountain where erosion had stripped the earth except for one gravestone. The simple tomb seemingly held up the core of stone and dirt and history. And the other unworldly mountains looked on and agreed. We had floated through those sentinels of ancient ink paintings on bamboo rafts. Our handsome raft-man says his family goes back 1500 years to that village, where now he can no longer survive on our one fare. So we helped him carry the raft upstream, and he let me miserably try to pole us as he so elegantly could. But I kept driving us into the riverbank where a lone woman kneeled among the rows of radishes over several lifetimes.

And they would apologize for being simple peasants, their words. And I begged them to know we dream their life. Except I know ours somehow has a deeper horizon — however unchartered, un-ventured and never satisfied. And our pastime of theorizing choices and opportunities when their doors open to another dark courtyard where the chickens scratch. But I sat by her fire and heard the pond language of traveling spring water and ate the fish they just took from there. All while the crickets and stranger frogs hummed oddities. I could place her here in my mind, like how one copes with an untouchable lover on a far-off continent. There I felt a new loneliness that lurked behind me in the bamboo forest, like a luxurious hotel room with no one to share the ache. And it has followed me home.

Because in the same day, I was driving down the street of my childhood home, firmly in an Americana that is iconic and unoriginal and unmoving. The same home that bore an insulated, however splintered child that never moved 30 miles from her birthplace. I arrived on that self-same street not by miracle of imagination but by dint of modernity and privilege and luck and post-human transportation and time changes. There are no words to describe that kind of return.

I cannot also romanticize that grand-mother-land — she is my fleeting sight of the glowing pheasant bird heralded in those ink paintings, digging through garbage behind the hastily-restored Great Wall.

Here is my love of grassy and vegetal air rising off the coastal scrub above the rough surf. The cliffs off which people much braver than I, with only fabric and string faith, jump into those circling updrafts. Here also are the voices of people droning on about sniveling inannities. Trying to escape from their own aching hotel rooms of life, like me.

Her migration was epic like Fox Sparrow’s. Not like ours to a new state. Maybe it is her cells flowing through me, carrying the trauma of torn roots that makes me feel otherwise. She came from so far to be buried here, now part of my mountain over this ocean, not one of those over his river. And I don’t want to go. God please don’t make me go. And I will go. I know and forget that all these minor heartbreaks are good practice for the final one, whichever mountain it will be.


(That fish.)

“I come to give you something, and it is the gift of my own beaten self.” — Oedipus at Colonnus


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IMG_3528(My son looking over a piece of whale blubber, April 2015)

For the third time since April, small crowds gather at the beach near my home to see yet another corpse of a dead whale washed ashore. Even for gawkers, an homage of solemnity surrounds this image of great defeat. A gentle and magical beast once gracefully at home in the mysterious reaches of ocean inaccessible to us, is now a heap of rotting surrender, rocking gently in the most derelict of slumbers by the relentless waves. Feet away from our local strip mall.

When we read Oedipus, he pointed out the passive structure of the line — the gift of my own beaten self. Because that is what happens when our will fails, we can no longer act. In those moments when we worry about the increasingly acidic and inhospitable ocean, we pick garbage off the beach, we sign petitions, ban plastic bags, we are careful about what sloughs off into our gutters leading to the sea. And I can’t help but think that this third beacon, a totem of majesty now throroughly exhausted, signifies that it doesn’t matter. And a part of me is like that slumped over dark mass of hopelessness, filling me with deep apology. And like a true gift, there is only a response of stillness — not transaction — just acceptance.

The first whale in April was a headliner. It was a 49-foot sperm whale, a species rarely washed ashore because they are at home so far from land. My son and I stood at the perimeter to pay our respects. In the meanwhile, scientists butchered the prized corpse for data. “Why did it die?,” my son asked. A spokesperson from the Academy of Sciences fielded questions, for some reason focusing mostly on a British vacationing family, whose youngest son was poking irreverently at a dead, starved seal pup a few yards away. While we eavesdropped, the spokesperson told them some facts about the sperm whale and what the scientists were looking for. “Why did it die?,” again. She recounted that the whale was later in life, because his teeth were worn down significantly. “Why did it die?” Then she added that although emaciated, the whale had a big meal of squid in his entrails. “Why did it…?” Finally she addressed my son, mostly to stop the grating repetition known only to young children who are ignored and don’t realize the futility of trying not to be. “We don’t know.”

Analysis is a form of subordination, of trying to assert a superiority. Steiner asks, do you ever find a representative from a faraway subsistent tribe in the middle of a North American city, studying our first-world behaviors? Most thinking is indeed a form of self-establishment, of self-congealing.

In real thinking, he said, you almost disappear. There is an intense turning towards — and it is to be in love with everything around you. But here, I go back and forth, wanting to know why so many dead things are being hurled against our shore, and I am met with a harsh refusal.

It is a crisis of consciousness to try to make beautiful things in what can be described as very unbeautiful times. As Steiner says, music never says no. And my god, there are so many seductions coaxing me away from real-art making, even just the projection of myself into this very writing — which Steiner says is an act of a minor craftsman falling short of any originality. But I must give testimony, for the hope that art happens and shows us the freedom not to be. A freedom that sometimes enters after the beaten self is off-stage, dissolving slowly into the sea.

“whatever we lose like a you or a me
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea” — ee cummings

Detail of Turner's Burial at Sea

(Detail from Turner’s Burial at Sea painting, 1842)