Sunday, December 31, 2017

And one

Sometimes you can feel the very notion of yourself
flowing out through your fingertips, and the wind in your hair
is not wind, but caress, and your hair is not hair,
but a place for stars to meet.

And one — one life, one love, one peace, one dove,
one word, one almighty gentle thought
that has not yet come to anyone.

And the thought is not a thought,
but the very notion of yourself flowing out
through your fingertips.

And your fingers are not fingers.

Then a child comes and takes delight in you,
and in the birds singing from your branches.

And you are this child, and distance crumbles,
and meaning drinks at the stream.

And the stream is a galaxy. Imagine the roots it dreams!

Now, give me your coat, love, and come in,
let me kiss the snow from your brow.

Let me, if I am, or have been.

Let me end and begin.

Let me when and then.

Come in! Come in! Come in, love! Come in!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The flowering spirit

Yesterday in the mist, I cleared the old dead geraniums from the barrels behind the house, as well as the skeletal fried marigolds, and the beard-straggly impatiens that bloomed so well. And when I say “dead,” of course I do not mean dead. I simply mean that the green and flowering spirit has gone out of them, and that their roots and stems have surrendered to a miraculous sleep. It is the long-dreaming time when winter, once again, is more than a word, and one considers the plight of statues frozen in the park. You see them waiting for children who do not come. You wonder how they are getting along. To the first one you meet, you give your scarf; to the rest, your heart. At the bottom of your coat pocket, there is a stray button. You think of your mother’s bag of buttons, still in her dresser drawer. You walk down the hall. In the back room, you notice once again that the window is open, ever so slightly. You did not open it. You never do. And yet you find that someone has, some visitor, perhaps, or someone who has never quite needed to leave. What about that? And why aren’t you alarmed? What is it that you know, but don’t quite realize, or that you realize, but don’t quite know? That the flowering spirit, perhaps, is alive and well, after all?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Canvas 1,123

Canvas 1,123

December 29, 2017

Reading: a year-end book note for 2017

Last year at this time, if I remember correctly, I mentioned having read, during 2016, all of Plutarch’s Lives, in Sir Thomas North’s sixteenth century translation; all of Thackeray’s major novels, in my corrupt and crippled mental translation; and quite a lot of Spanish, in no translation. All the while, I was adding books to my library as if I had another ten lifetimes to read them. These, we might laughingly refer to as William’s Lives.

But that was last year. This year, I read even less, and, by my usual standards, very little. Neither did I keep a list. And for that reason, I couldn’t tell you exactly what I read, although a few things do stand out. The reason I’ve read less might be of interest. I have, without planning to, become more physically active. Not restless, mind you — but I found that the more I move about, the more I want and need to move about. While I was already active in the yard, I’ve also been walking a lot more. Or, to put it another way, I sit less, and I don’t do much reading while standing up. So the long sittings that made possible projects like reading all of Dickens, for instance, and all of Sir Walter Scott, have given way to about one hour very early in the morning, during which I read Spanish. And of course if you do anything an hour a day, every day, you can do a certain amount of damage. I read Don Quijote in the original, for instance, and Juan Valera’s Pepita Jiménez. And presently I’m about a quarter of the way into a massive 4,000-page project: a Spanish translation of History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages, by the nineteenth century French writer, Eugène Sue. In other words, I really have lost my mind.

What else? Oh, yes. One day a few months ago, our son surprised me by arriving at our door with a complete forty-two-volume vintage set containing the works of Voltaire — a gift out of the blue. I’m in the sixth volume of that, and the second of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.

As usual, there has also been a lot of reading at random, some of which I actually do while standing. Poetry. Letters. Journal entries. This is where the library experience comes in, and the joy of having almost 3,000 books together in one room, winking from stacks and shelves like so many lanterns or stars. A solemn night procession down a mountainside. Whispers. Voices. Song.

Finally, just days ago at Christmas, I became the astonished recipient of two tiny leather-bound books* from the seventeenth century. Both are in Latin; one is by Apuleius, the other by Valerius Maximus; and they were published, if you can believe it, in Amsterdam, in 1624 and 1650. These were found by our son, Vahan, and were a gift from all four of our kids. Vahan bought them on Ebay, and he assures me they did not cost too much, which I believe, because I know from my own experience that that venue is a kind of free-for-all which leads to strange interpretations of value.

And so ends another book report. You know, I remember giving them in school, but it wasn’t nearly this fun. In fact, it wasn’t really fun at all. But that, as they say, is another story, and one you probably know well.

* You can see them if you follow the links.

Canvas 1,122

Canvas 1,122

December 29, 2017

How many buttons?

How many buttons did you have to push to come here? How many times did you push them? How many links did you have to follow? One? Two? Three? Did this process seem difficult to you? Did it feel like it took very much time? — as long, perhaps, is it took my father to go in search of road apples all around the farm when he was a kid during the Great Depression, because his uncle, just ten years his senior, had said, “Go find some road apples”? It was the first time he’d heard the term. He didn’t know what road apples were. But he went out looking for them just the same. Up and down the narrow road in front of their house. Road 66. Up and down the vineyard rows. Behind the barn. Under the mulberry tree. Imagine how many links he had to click on. And where did they lead? To a beautiful childhood memory. To a story laughed over and told a hundred times. How many buttons? — on your coat? on your face? on your smile? on the life you lead? O my friend! my love!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

“No, Rambo.”

Someday I’ll have to tell you about the neighbor up the street whose house is neglected and in utter decay, with shingles falling off and tree limbs on the roof, rotting vehicles in the driveway, and an overgrown yard that one would be foolish to enter, because of a certain unpredictable four-year old boxer that lives on and in the premises. I had a run-in with the dog just a couple of mornings ago. I’d just set out on a short walk, and was a couple of houses away in the opposite direction, when, out of the quiet misty dark, I was suddenly alarmed by the dog’s wild barking right behind me, and then, just as suddenly, right in front of me, only five or six feet away. Immediately, instinct kicked in, and I yelled so loud at the dog to “get out of here,” followed by a choice expletive, that the thing took off running and ran all the way home. This is what happens, I guess, when an aggressive young male meets a hairy old jackass. I looked at the houses around me, still dark. I expected lights to come on and neighbors to emerge with clubs and guns. Nothing. My heart was pounding. Someday I’ll have to tell you about it. I’ll also have to mention that it’s not the first time it’s happened, and that I’m not the only one in the neighborhood that it’s happened to, and that the owner has been visited by animal control authorities. The fact is, yesterday, a day after this happened, I was thinking of calling them myself, when, on the way home from the grocery store, we saw the neighbor sitting in his one vehicle that still runs, parked by the curb, with his head down, either asleep, dead, or looking at his phone. Back at the house, I said to my wife, “Maybe I should go talk to him.” And so I walked over there, keeping my eyes open all the while for the dog, which turned out to be on the seat beside him. The man’s head was still down. The window was up. I walked up slowly, so not to surprise him. He had a phone in his lap. When he didn’t look up, I finally rapped on the window lightly with my knuckle. This made the dog bark. The man woke up, or came to, and looked at me with a half-dazed expression, and smiled in an almost but not quite embarrassed sort of way. He started the engine in order to roll down his window part way. Even with a gap of only six or eight inches, the dog was hoping to leap out and race off down the street. Anyway. We had a quiet little talk. I’d never talked to him before. I told him what had happened, and how it wasn’t the first time, etc., etc., and he replied by saying the dog just wants to play, and so on, and so on, and all you have to do is tell him, “No, Rambo.” Of course he knows that dogs are supposed to be on a leash, but sometimes it moves too quickly for him — this latter being my observation, not his. The dog has one purpose in life, and that is to run. And the man has him for one reason, and that is for companionship. It’s very sad, very beautiful, and very interesting. The man is slow. The dog is fast. The dog tolerates the man because the man feeds him and gives him blankets to sleep on inside. The dog has an ignorant expression. They got out of the vehicle. He held onto the dog by a small frayed rope attached to a collar. I gave the dog a rub, which it didn’t seem to notice. “I want to run. I want to run. I want to run. And bark. That’s what I want to do.” We talked a little more. I said that if he’s not careful, one of these days someone would call it in and he’d lose him. The man was helpless. He smiled. The dog is his only friend. I can only imagine what the house looks like inside, the leaks from the roof, the dirt, the smell. I think his plumbing still works. And so we parted company on friendly terms, with no guarantee whatsoever that the next time I go out, I won’t be accosted by Rambo. We had enjoyed a quiet few months. I expect the neighbor will be extra-careful with him for awhile. He doesn’t want to lose him. I could go on, about what I learned about myself and the man from the encounter and from our conversation, about what I’m still learning as I write this. But it’s time for my walk.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Canvas 1,121

Canvas 1,121

December 27, 2017

What December Said to January

December is a wise old month — somewhat bitter in disposition, perhaps, but not without good reason, as so much of death is entrusted to its care. Its pride is earned, its beauty is often harsh, its lessons are many.


Let the record
show I did
not go willingly.

Nor am I impressed
by the ruse you
call “The First,”
which you use
to hide the fact
I passed this way.

I am offended,
not ended.

Do not forget,
I have frozen ponds
and cast blood-red berries
to the ground; I have
blotted out the sun.

You have crocuses,
I’ll grant you that;
but I have summoned them;
the rest you leave for
spring to solve.

My advice to you?

Take pride in what you do
and never follow suit;
your days are numbered;
be true to them.

“What December Said to January,” with brief introduction, from Collected Poems. Included also in Winter Poems, Cosmopsis Books, San Francisco, 2007.

Canvas 1,120

Canvas 1,120

December 27, 2017

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A warm muffin and a fresh ripe orange

Imagine loving silence and solitude so well you invite everyone in to share it. And by in, I don’t mean your house, or your room, or even your forest. I mean your understanding, which is mist to some, a galaxy to others, a quiet pond, a vast murmuration. A warm muffin. A fresh, ripe orange, like the one we live upon and call the earth, which is peeled and eaten and replenished with each breath. Imagine loving so well, by which I mean so completely and without reservation, that upon greeting each other we joyously brush the words from our coats and leave them to melt on the floor. Leaf, ash, lantern, each your favorite in turn. And then come the hugs. And the tears. Why, oh why, have we waited so long? Were we waiting for Christmas? Why were we waiting at all? No; please; do not answer. In this windswept snowy realm, any grave will do. As will every flower, every universe, every child. Imagine? Why, when all of it and none of it is real? And yet we do. And so I imagine my love for you.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Canvas 1,118

Canvas 1,118

December 23, 2017

A simple law

It is a simple law : cling, and it slips through your hands,

whatever it is : and if it is not simple,

you are simply afraid

of it.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Canvas 1,117

Canvas 1,117

December 22, 2017

I came upon them in the wood,
their kindness without limit and their silence profound,
their branches bare, their last grief down.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


I say almost as if I know one twig from another,
one tree from the next, without ever quite coming to rest —
almost as if one’s good, one’s better, one’s best — almost
as if I’m a teacher and life is a test — when the truth is,
I’m really an imagined bird, and this cold
makes me wish for the nest!

Canvas 1,116

Canvas 1,116

December 21, 2017

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Ode to Joy

Your thoughts go where they have been. Have you noticed? Like horses on a hobby farm, they follow the well-worn, familiar track. And when they get back, you stroke them and feed them. And they reward you in turn with doleful eyes, when you are sad, with a playful nibble when you are glad, and with a sigh that echoes the boredom of your command. Now, look at your hand. Behold the miracle of its lines and creases. Where has it been? Is it an instrument of grace, or destruction? Both, perhaps. It depends on how aware you are of your thoughts, how aware of which are truly useful and needed, and which are merely comforting noise, like a radio playing oldies in the background, with your ego the relentlessly predictable deejay. How noble! And then, suddenly, you hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” And then, birdsong. And then, the silence of all eternity:

Ode to Joy


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Canvas 1,115

Canvas 1,115

December 19, 2017

Winter watch

The birds are out, the robins in pairs, their colors intense.

They are like little day-lanterns that help me see the light.

And now it is night, and the wind is high in the meadow.

And the wind is why my body is a hut the trees know.

Canvas 1,114

Canvas 1,114

December 19, 2017

As you approach the city, there, before the walls,
you meet them, everyone’s grandfather and grandmother;
they might be of stone, a kind of flesh
that lasts longer.

Monday, December 18, 2017

One more thing

In the eyes of the law, my wife and I own a few things. The list, though, is very short — so short, in fact, it doesn’t qualify as a list. In our hearts and minds, on the other hand, we own nothing. I say this even of my books. We are caretakers, not owners. Whatever we have, whatever we use, whatever we admire, whatever we treasure, we have never, ever possessed. There is no “mine” or “ours” in this house, except in the most common sense, as in, for instance, “my shoes,” or, “your comb.” Neither do we own each other. How it happened that life brought us together, to our good fortune, it chose to do so in our youth, well before we were twenty. It is all a beautiful mystery. And so even the terms “my wife” and “my husband” are really for conventional use, only in public.

Now, this is obviously another of many of those short rambles of mine that lead nowhere, and yet that I feel worth passing along. Call it musing, or marveling, or simply being grateful aloud — or all of these things in one — perhaps it is most beautiful because it is one more thing of which to let go.

Canvas 1,113

Canvas 1,113

December 18, 2017

Kindly face, no trace of malice.
Is this not a good thing?
A deep breath now. And, sing.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

I put on a pillowcase

I put on a pillowcase the same way my mother did. I turn it inside out first, then grab the corners of the pillow from the corners inside, then turn the pillowcase right side out as I tug it back over the pillow.

And isn’t it funny how hard it is to describe such a simple everyday task?

And isn’t it even funnier that I would bother to take the time?

Yes. As funny as a gumball for a dime.

Or a face like mine, when all the world is wanting.

light delight

geese in flight before it’s light

and sight is equal to the mist

slight is equal to this bliss

and night is needful of this kiss

Canvas 1,112

Canvas 1,112

December 17, 2017

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Canvas 1,111

Canvas 1,111

December 16, 2017

My first thought was, “Christmas ornament.”

Thursday, December 14, 2017


above houses

left dark and unadorned

the stars the stars the stars the stars

and then I saw someone

quite up in years

at her open door

with the dim light behind her


and her house was a hill

and the frost on the ground

was glistening

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


There appeared on the cold winter road a butterfly,

Which came to rest on my cane.

The cane, feeling her weight, sprouted leaves,

And the butterfly closed and opened her wings.

Now, I have seen many strange things on the road,

But never this! — only to discover my cane

Had put down roots. Grateful, yet cold, and amazed,

I pushed down upon the curved handle,

To steady myself and press on . . .

Only to find, the road was gone!

I was alone in the snow!

I was old! And peace descended on my soul.

And my soul was an old shoe

From a chance-forgotten, half-remembered


Where to go?

Where more beautiful than this world?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Eucalyptus, sycamore, peach, plum

The other shoe — has it dropped yet? Or are you still waiting?

It’s a funny thing, sitting here in the early morning quiet, knowing full well the roofers will be pounding away again by eight. In a strange way, although it is a bit hard on the ears, I look forward to it. There are different kinds of storms. Because I also think of war, and dwellings crashing around those who made the tragic mistake of being born. We get a new roof and they get

Has it dropped yet? Or are you still waiting?

Twenty-four degrees this morning.

And I’m glad you’re here.

I remember moving wood onto the porch of my childhood home. From the door, it was a short direct line to the fireplace. Eucalyptus, sycamore, peach, plum. Words, sweet on the tongue.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Proud old men in a row

Twenty-six again this morning. I do like to look back at the weather records, probably because it’s something my father used to do, and partly too because memory is so unreliable when it comes to weather extremes. A couple of days ago, for instance, I noticed the record low was eight degrees, set in 2013. On yesterday’s date in 1972, it was minus-five. One forgets these things. Something one doesn’t forget, though, is the long hours spent pruning our vineyards and orchards during the winter months. We worked in the cold, we worked in the thick San Joaquin Valley fog, listening to the rhythm of our shears as their hum moved up through the handles and into our hands, every sound magnified, a sneeze or a laugh from the neighbor’s vineyard, the almost-sound of someone’s far-off transistor radio. All of December. All of January. Most or all of February. Sometimes even into March. The work changes you. The cold changes you. And everywhere you turn, frozen sculpture. Vine stumps revealed, looking like proud old men in a row. And you recognize them. Planted by your father. Planted by his father. Shaggy with bark. Like them. And what have you become? What are you now? Are you still fruitful? Do lizards and horned toads still congregate at your feet? Ha! You think I’m crazy, don’t you. Well, you would be too.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Poetical Works of Thomas Hood

Complete in Three Volumes

New York : G.P. Putnam and Sons


In light of

Twenty-six degrees this morning.

I wonder what I would do if I were a star? Shine like the rest of them, I suppose. And perhaps be gone by the time my light is seen in this faraway world.

Lantern is a word I love. I wonder how old I was when I first learned it.

A procession of candles. No one holding them. Just the candles themselves, moving along, at about the height they would usually be carried. And there is singing.

Where are the voices coming from?

You hear them, don’t you?

Is it the rocks that are singing? The trees? The mountainsides?

It might even be the cars parked alongside the curb. The neighbors’ garbage cans.

All these words need now is a hook to hang your hat from.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Just a few words

Just a few words to say I am alive — so the sun wrote the moon, and the moon passed it on,
and light filled the room, and the room called it dawn, and dawn called it love, and love called it home.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Canvas 1,109

Canvas 1,109

December 7, 2017

One thing I see in this gentle parade, is innocence.
As, who can be angry in the presence
of scattered blossoms and falling leaves?
And, live to tell about it?

Canvas 1,108

Canvas 1,108

December 7, 2017

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Canvas 1,107

Canvas 1,107

December 6, 2017

Canvas 1,106

Canvas 1,106

December 6, 2017

I was awakened this morning
by someone knocking.
I got up, looked out, let him in.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


One thing I’ve noticed while walking, is that if I walk with very good posture, and with my feet not touching the ground, no effort is needed to be a light in the night and the cold.

Wild out, wild in

You’re reading about a storm during a storm, and then, shivering, you look up. Much to your surprise, you find the trees calm, the street quiet, and the lamplight unwavering. You look back at your book: a mute brick: ink: paper: binding. You decide to rest your eyes. You close them. Here it is again! Here comes the wind! It’s wild out. It’s wild in. And it only ends when someone gently closes you, and says, amen.

Monday, December 4, 2017

‘A magnificent, full-blooded biography’

by André Maurois

I was still in my twenties when I read Les Misérables.
Impossible. Great. Beautiful. Fantastic.
I cried at the end.

Would I cry now?
Why, whatever makes you think I stopped?
My laughter?

An old friendly retriever

The neighbors next door have an old friendly blond retriever. Yesterday, while the father was out hanging lights, and one of his little sons was watching from the ground, the dog noticed us as we passed and gave us a big smile from their driveway. And of course we smiled in return. Joy.

Fairly early the other morning, I stopped at the grocery store for some bananas. On my way out, I met a woman who was very tired, disappointed, and poor. As we approached each other, I smiled. And though at that moment a smile seemed the farthest thing from her mind, one appeared on her face, the deep lines of which were immediately rearranged. Joy.

And I think I will be an old friendly retriever today.

Canvas 1,105

Canvas 1,105

December 4, 2017

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Pearls and lace

The lacy green maple is not so lacy anymore. But now its bare twigs are densely lined with bright miniature pearls. And that reminds me of two words that surfaced in my mind during my walk earlier with the moon: abundance, and generosity. The other words, if there were any, I cannot remember.


Early this morning, the clouds parted just in time to reveal the setting super moon. I saw it from two places on my walk: from the middle of the street in front of the house when I first set out, and from the second stop sign, at the corner, through the bare trees, one street to the south. I have never seen the moon looking so large. And the air, being washed by the rain, was so clear. A few feet further, and then I saw him: a little boy, string in hand, looking up, smiling, giving the moon a tug.

Canvas 1,104

Canvas 1,104

December 3, 2017

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The way it is and has been

When I was making the drawing I posted a while ago, it started to rain. It rained heavily enough that I could hear it landing on the roof. Since then, it has slowed to a sprinkle. And when I say slowed, I realize that the individual drops are probably still falling the same speed as when it was raining a bit harder. And when I say harder, I realize I have chosen a funny, if conventional, way of describing something that kisses each leaf, each needle, each blade of grass; each stone, each curb, each round metal drain cover, each mossy mound. So what is it that I am doing, really? What am I trying to say? That I am still alive, that I am still here, and that somehow everything has changed — changed so profoundly that it seems just the same? That I am enjoying my coffee? That it is enjoying me? While I was drawing, I was noticing for perhaps the ten thousandth time how good it felt. And now, while I’m writing, I am noticing the same thing. In both cases, it is a feeling of intimacy, as if my fingers were simultaneously sending and receiving and responding through the touch of warm living tissue and bone and skin. I suppose that sounds crazy. But that is the state I am in, and for as long as I can remember, all the way back to my childhood on the farm, that is the way it has been.

Canvas 1,103

Canvas 1,103

December 2, 2017

Friday, December 1, 2017

What a kid remembers

My mother’s brother-in-law was given the Purple Heart seven times. Like my father’s brother — the fortunate one — he survived the Battle of the Bulge. Then he came home. And got a job. The years went by. He became a bank manager in a small town. He played golf. His skin was deeply tanned. He smoked. He had a gold cigarette case. He was nice. He was kind. He was gentle. He never complained. He had smile lines around his eyes. He made a roll top desk and gave it to my mother. It’s in one of the bedrooms, full of my brother’s stuff. He also liked to grow things. His backyard became a kind of maze of tree trunks with tufts on top searching for the light. Every few months, my aunt would call and say they were going to stop by for a visit that afternoon. They drove into the yard and parked on the gravel under the big pine tree. They came in and sat and talked. Very unremarkable. Very quiet. My aunt was kind of a prune. Her husband understood her. He sat and smiled and told stories and smoked cigarettes and was calm and friendly. That’s what a kid remembers. That, and his gold cigarette case, his manner of opening it, the way it looked on the little table beside him in his chair. Patience. You would never have known there had been a war. A kid had to find out about it little by little, find out about the Purple Hearts, find out about the suffering and the fear. Well. I don’t know what reminded me of this, sitting here in the dark this morning, with my funny little second-hand lamps glinting from odd corners of the room. He died when he was eighty or so. My aunt lived on, and died when she was ninety-three. By then she really was a prune. Pretty nutty, too. There are still a number of her old letters around. I would read them, if I didn’t remember them so well. Maybe our children will find them someday, open one, and say, What the hell? And then smile.