Friday, February 19, 2010

On His Blindness

A few days ago, I was disabled by a sinus headache — the clear sign of an upcoming change in the weather. And sure enough, our moist air has given way to frosty mornings and dazzling afternoon sunshine. The dawns are spectacular. To the northeast, behind and beyond the neighborhood trees, the Cascade silhouette resembles an ocean wave. Even now, nearly twenty-three years after leaving our family farm, I feel the urge to meet my father behind the house and head out into the field. Still February, our pruning is not yet done. Several rows of wine grapes still wait near their recently sculpted brethren. A new carpet of weeds has already sprouted. To the east, the snowy high Sierra looms clear and cold. The morning will be long: my father stuffs the pockets of his coveralls with just-picked oranges.

The pain was excruciating — the kind that teaches lessons and builds character. For this reason, I like pain. I don’t seek it, necessarily, but when it arrives I try to extend it my best courtesy. But there are limits. Due to his osteoarthritis, my father lived in a great deal of pain. His back was a mess — a skeletal puzzle of disintegration, fusion, and tortured nerves none of his surgeries could resolve, and which drugs only partly relieved. When he died a suicide, the morphine pump in his back went with him.

Recently, prior to the headache, I told my wife that I can no longer remember what it’s like to not have pain. The past several years, especially, have taken quite a toll. The whole time I was taking care of my mother, I was unable to rest and get proper exercise. And that period really began well before the final phase that made it necessary for me to live with her for three years. But I should also clarify: I could have exercised, but I chose to write instead. The result is myriad aches and pains, headaches, neck aches, and a general muscular weakness I find embarrassing and appalling — and yet now, when I hop on my bicycle and take it for a spin, I feel the old energy return, everywhere from my lungs to my fingertips. And so if I live long enough, I just might achieve my second wind.

It’s also important to note that my father could have worked less, and that he also chose to carry on instead — which leads me to this thought: sometimes, loving what you do is the most dangerous, addictive drug of all.

And then there’s this defiance I feel, this unreasonable need to gamble all — not money, or belongings, no, but the very identity I’ve created and upon which I stand. Thinking I am who I think I am is mostly a matter of habit and convenience. It’s a necessary convention, too, for those I love. It’s comforting for all concerned when I wake up in the morning knowing who I am and where.

I call myself a writer and a poet, and I am. But writing and poetry did not bring me here — life did, and so my allegiance must be to that relentless force that has temporarily granted me this human form. Rearrange my molecules, add a little sun and wind and rain, and I just might be that wise old grapevine clinging to your arbor. It would be an honor.

“On His Blindness” is my newest Notebook entry. Old notes are archived here. Also: a link to Zena has been added to the previous Notebook entry, Obituary: Remembering Tim Hinshaw.

In the Forum: shisha according to the Hookahpedia.


Elisabeth said...

William, I'm struck by the strange synchronicity of the blogosphere.

When I just now read the title of your post, I thought of Paul Martin's most recent post, see:
If you haven't already seen it, you might be interested.

It's late here in Melbourne and I should attend to my bodily need for sleep even as my desire to write to you now is so persuasive.

This is, as ever, a fascinating post. I think you'd enjoy Paul's too, and maybe thereafter we can talk about Milton and his take 'on his blindness'.


Joseph Hutchison said...

"that relentless force that has temporarily granted me this human form"

Yes! Very much along the lines that David Loy, my favorite Buddhist philosopher, follows out in his books (a list here). It's a lovely and lonely situation....

Transcend said...

That was a genius read, the outdoors never sounded so good!
Sorry to hear about your pain as well...
not sure if you've ever heard of this dude's book:

I've been juicing and doing a 80% raw organic fruit/veggie diet now for about 4 months, and I've never felt better...This is something EVERYONE needs to check out my friend, it is no joke...

William Michaelian said...

Elisabeth, yes, I’m an avid reader and follower of Paul’s blog, and had already read his entry. Had I not, I probably would have given this piece a different title — what, I don’t know, since there is plenty of my own blindness in it. I do love Milton’s poem, which seems to reveal something different each time I read it.

Joe, I really appreciate your comment, and thanks for the link. That you have a favorite Buddhist philosopher speaks volumes, I think. I know you wouldn’t make that statement lightly. For the record, I do have a favorite opera singer: Mario Lanza. Maybe that says something about my own philosophy.

Transcend, my friend — the book you linked to is new to me, but not the idea behind it. Of course, one can find wisdom in many different approaches, and even a combination thereof. At the same time, there are other influences/obstacles that play into it: family background, ethnicity, and contemporary culture, just to name three. And an intriguing fourth: one’s possible addiction to pain. Glad you liked the “scenery.” I’ve long felt that if the answer can’t be found in nature, one is probably asking the wrong questions.

joanne May said...

Hi William,
Thank you for visiting me from Caio's blog. Sorry for the delay in catching up with you.
I understand about the type headaches you are talking about, when the air is damp... I also get the pressure headaches around the eyes and neck. I admit, I do not exercise enough either.
I am so sorry to hear about your father. My grandmother suffered with a great deal of pain before she died of Cancer. I was quite young but her pain affected me very deeply, as I was very close to her.
Since then I have learnt to enjoy life the best way possible.
You sound like you live somewhere quite magical and perfect for a writer. I really like the way you write.
Good to meet you!
All the best.
Jo May.

William Michaelian said...

Thanks, Jo May. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Your blog is beautiful — a feast for the eyes and mind.

Since he died in 1995, I’ve written about my father countless times, but this is the first time I’ve mentioned that he ended his own life. Well, that’s not quite true; I’ve referred to it in stories and poems, but in ways only those very close to me would recognize. And that includes a small handful of online friends I’ve yet to meet in person. Frankly, as hard as it was at the time, I admire what he did. I do know that if the average person (not that such a beast really exists) were to suddenly experience even a small portion of the pain he suffered, it would knock him off his feet and make him question all sorts of things.

The magic you refer to — oh, yes: just this morning, a pair of robins announced the dawn as if they’d invented it. And I like to think they did.

vazambam said...

A post to open one's eyes!

Your response to a comment left by Transcend, "I’ve long felt that if the answer can’t be found in nature, one is probably asking the wrong questions", sent me scurrying to find what Odysseus Elytis once said in a 1975 interview:

"...I think that along whatever path man searches for truth, he is bound to arrive at nature. As I myself one wrote, if nature did not exist, it would have to be invented, because otherwise one could not be. The final goal of every exploration is inescapably nature."

Paul L. Martin said...

I don't know if I can do justice to the original post, William, or the thoughtful comments you have received, but I must add my "two cents." You are a modern Transcendentalist, and it ain't just the Walt Whitman hair and beard, my friend. This post is filled with so much grace, wisdom, honesty, and brilliance. I too, see your mountains clearly and feel your pain. And I completely understand the "addicted to pain" point. Life is not just about the upside, and I am reminded of the Buddhist belief in pain as a constant companion to life, along with Impermanence and suffering. I would add only that writing is an allegiance to life. It is through our art that we capture what it means to be alive and document the experience. And that comes through in every poem, story and piece you write. I read your work for its insight to your life while never failing to recognize the consistency of the human condition you describe. Your work makes us feel we are not alone on our own journeys. At a great risk for sounding too much like a teacher, excellent work here.

Mr. Hutchinson,
Thanks for the tip on David Loy. I will look up his work.

William Michaelian said...

Vassilis, I recognize that quote, but I can’t remember where I read it — somewhere on your blog, perhaps, or in a literary mailing I subscribe to. While your Nobel laureate’s version has more substance, our two observations certainly zero in on the same thing. Mine, though, does have the advantage of being pithier and, as such, would look better on beer labels. The more beer you drink, the more sense it makes!

Paul, you have me wondering now if “On His Blindness” merits these fine comments — including yours, which leaves me blushing behind my beard. But I’m delighted to hear the main points echoed throughout. That means they do register, at least with this select group of willing, receptive readers. For that I’m grateful. Sometimes, after working on a piece of writing and releasing it into the wild — and this includes letters — I do wonder if what made so much sense to me at the time might not seem hollow, arrogant, or self-absorbed. With comments like these, I’m temporarily released from Purgatory — until my next regularly scheduled offense.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I applaud the Buddhist sentiments in your piece and comments here: the acceptance of pain as a fact we learn to live with rather than (as in Christinaity)attribute to convenient 'fictions' designed to blame mostly nature, the female and normally healthy human instincts. Life is suffering because we greedily,vainly cling to things that don't matter.

But writing does matter: it's why I gather you continue to write despite the physical ailments and, more importantly to me,why your kindnesses to those who share this writing 'space' with you are always given freely, generously.Why so many are drawn to your website.

The two most popular sites (as far I'm able to gather)are probably yours and Ron Silliman's: the common denominator is the generosity, fairness and kindness of you and Ron. Qualities in poets that always transcend the individual 'differences of opinion' we may have with you.

And,lastly, thanks for the Milton sonnet title: Milton,my favourite poet in the English language, and "On His Blindness" among my very favourite poems.

William Michaelian said...

Conrad, I’m glad you had the time to read this piece and to add your observations to those above. When I wrote this entry, I wasn’t really aware that I was expressing Buddhist or Transcendentalist sentiments; I was simply trying to respond as accurately and honestly as I could to what I thought I was understanding and feeling at the time. That’s all I ever really do. The daily impressions even find their way into my longer work — memories, dreams, the seasons, the presence and absence of pain — so that even the novels I’ve written have elements of the daily journal. I would never call myself a Buddhist, a Christian, or anything else. At best, I’m an amateur human being. Neither would I align myself with a particular political system. Religions, philosophies, systems — none of them are worth a hoot if people aren’t honest with each other and with themselves. If we are honest, the need for them diminishes. My father was an honest man — without doubt one of the most honest I’ve known, and at times he suffered because of it. I try to live up to his example, but I’ve stumbled many times along the way.

How right you are about suffering due to clinging to things that don’t matter.

Why do I write? At present, it’s one of the best ways I have of responding to and celebrating the fact that I’m alive. Will that always be the case? I don’t know. Sometimes I think singing on a street corner would serve just as well. That is, in fact, what I am doing, in a cyber sort of way. I’m a blind blues singer.

Your reference to Ron Silliman and the relative “popularity” of our sites is interesting. He certainly has his fans and his detractors. I think one of the main differences between us is that I expect to change no one’s mind. Maybe he doesn’t either, but sometimes it seems that he does. The gulf of poetic knowledge between us and some of those who comment regularly on his blog is staggering. The erudition, the knowledge, the background, the schools, the trends (some real, some imagined) — is usually more than I can handle. It’s interesting to me, but only to a point. I try to keep up, but sometimes I would rather sit and stare at a fire, or page through an old book. I know what I know, but the path to that knowledge has been a circuitous one. Also, the last thing I want to do here is talk shop. I try to keep that to a minimum. I want Recently Banned Literature to be for writing, poetry, and the arts, not about them.

I wrote a poem once; it’s called “Knowledge,” and I refer to it now and again:


A ripe apple,
inhabited by a worm.


And so, I really do insist on my blindness. Who knows — it might be my greatest asset.

Thanks again.

Elisabeth said...

William, I find your response to Conrad's thoughtful comment comforting.

Knowledge is like an apple eaten out by the worm of doubt. I love that you offer the opportunity to explore poetry here in your blog along the lines of the blind one who does not try to see too clearly, who merely glimpses his way, and inches along in the best way he can. Thanks.

William Michaelian said...

Elisabeth, thanks for checking in again. It’s encouraging to me that you feel this way.

Chrees said...

Sorry to hear of your pain, but hope you're feeling better now. I need to work on my second wind as well!

William Michaelian said...

Thanks. I could probably be hired by the weather service to act as some sort of advance barometer. My head is completely clear now — some would say empty — so all I have to do is wait for the weather to change back again. See you on the bike trail....

~im just only me~ said...

We've had an unusually warm winter this year and today feels like early spring with blue skies, big white clouds, some sun, and a cold breeze. I've been pruning our vines and orchard all day, and I think often of you and your father when I'm out there. Perhaps you all are with me nevertheless.

William Michaelian said...

Cassie, I was online when your comment appeared. It feels just like a letter from home. Thanks for planting such a lovely thought in the middle of my afternoon.