From "#12 Dagwood on Rye" © 2004
Dr. Michael wears blue jeans and canvas tennis shoes, and rather than the standard set of walnut-framed diplomas from Harvard or Johns Hopkins, his office bears blatant proof of his gross athleticism: tennis and lacrosse trophies, swimming medals, a plaque listing his name as captain of the rowing team. What's he trying to prove?
"Sit down, Mr. Bogan. Make yourself comfortable," he says.
Frankly, I am not comfortable in the office of a doctor trying very hard not to act like a doctor, particularly since he's a shrink. Have the games already begun? I sit down, he sits across from me and I look him in the eye; I know from the start that ours will be a contentious relationship.
"You don't have any diplomas on the wall," I state.
"Is that important to you?" he asks.
"Most doctors have diplomas on the wall, that's all."
"I'm not most doctors," he says.
Arrogant bastard. "People have expectations," I say.
"They're more comfortable when those expectations are met."
"Are you uncomfortable?"
I think about this for a long time, just to make him wonder.
"Do you think I'm uncomfortable?" I ask, and he laughs, the arrogant, arrogant bastard.
He tells me he's divorced, has two children, plays lacrosse on Wednesdays. I tell him I'm here because I don't want to get divorced, that I have one child I may actually love too much, that my wife thinks I'm losing my mind.
"Why does she think that?"
"You'd have to ask her."
"I'm asking you."
From "Crisis Line" © 2000
When my own skies cleared I was determined to do right: atone for the nasty things I'd done to my family, offset the attempted suicides, offer people the small things that I knew could save them. I wanted to balance the misery I'd inflicted with the misery I dispelled, not knowing how impossible this is. Who can weigh misery when the language of pain is not universal, can never be understood fully by anyone other than its victim? Gaining perspective while using my experience with despair and rebirth to help others, I believed, would make me whole. But I know now that we are not born to be whole; we are born to be cracked and thrown and flattened by circumstance, and our lives consist of the constant struggle to become whole, something we never were and never will be. This is what I want to say to Dot as I sit in front of her house, my palm sweaty where the phone lies across it. I want to say that the bluebells in her yard can save her, the chipped plate, the old letter; I want to say that the small things, the old things, the broken things can bring us comfort, can make us realize that we can be content without being whole. Just as I imagine ringing her doorbell, entering her house and taking her into my arms while proclaiming my small wisdom, the porch light snaps off, the front door swings open and a small woman in a bathrobe and slippers steps out. She's wearing white gloves, and she has something in her hand-a leash, or a stick-and as she makes her way toward the street, I slump down low; maybe Sven is crouched in the bushes, on the roof, behind a car. Just as I'm about to power up the phone, just as I'm about to lower my window and call out to her, just as I'm about to create a future with Dorothy Brautigan, I notice that the strange protrusion dangling from her left hand is an aluminum baseball bat. The woman who I assume, who I know is Dot moves with great trepidation across the front lawn, her arm stiffening, her head shifting like a wary animal until she stands, rigid, before her mailbox. It doesn't take long. As I peek at the crumpled box lying at her pink-slippered feet, I understand that Dot is practiced at breaking things.
From "Retreat" © 2000
My mother was institutionalized for depression when I was ten; that's what they did back then. She would cut half my bangs, or peel half a carrot, or dust half the coffee table before settling into the wing back chair and crying over the sad movies featured in her mind. "You're halfway there," Greta, my dad would say as she vacuumed the carpet or diced potatoes, as if she didn't know, as if the stop light and the projection screen in her head hadn't simultaneously blinked on. We would visit her on Sundays, and my dad would hold her hand as she ate half a plum, and after a while I saw something akin to the movies in my mother's head: two sad people, one who was crazy and one who refused to believe it. I know my roots: I've grown from the insanity and denial that are my foundations, and sometimes cutting them seems worth the risk of felling the tree.
After dinner I go to the Seikan Center for a two-hour hatha yoga class. Sha Nin, the instructor, is lethargic, and his bones crack and his body rebels when he bends to kneel. "This is not a competition," he says, and I realize that this is the collective mantra of the Tao Dai, a concept the monks feel they must impart to their guests, mostly Americans who have come into their monastery from the grip of capitalism, of materialism, of competition. "Don't go into pain," he admonishes. But I do. I take each stretch further than I should, refuse to bend my knees, hold positions too long because I do look at the others, because I have to succeed where they fail, because I must prove to myself that I am better than they are only to truly believe I might be almost as good.
Sha Nin's yoga mat is frayed at the edges, his sitting pillow is dingy, the color of tobacco-stained teeth, and his gray sweatshirt has a long, peninsular stain cascading down the front. As if reading my mind, Sha Nin kneels on his mat, the pitch of his popping spinal bones rising like xylophone keys being struck by a mallet, and says, "There is no enlightenment outside of daily life." Then what am I doing here, I wonder, and I peek at the others, who appear to have moved easily beyond the contradiction of their situations.
"You are where you are today," he says as we move from child to cat pose, from cat to frog, from frog to pigeon. "Honor your body." An hour into class it is clear that Phoebe is a regular yoga practitioner, but Monty and Clarice are sweating profusely in their matching flannel sweat suits, and Bernie is snoring on his mat. The other students don't appear to notice, but Sha Nin does. He tells us to lie on our backs, arms at our sides; he covers each of us with a thick, decorative blanket. Slowly and methodically he tucks the blankets under our chins, covers our feet, tells us to close our eyes. I hear the clap of a CD being inserted into the player, the whir of the disc as it spins into place, then the sound of water spilling from the sky.
"Consider," Sha Nin says, "spring rain waters all plants equally, and yet the flowering branches are long or short, and I want to say, "But what about the sun, the soil, the roots?"