There’s an old zen koan that starts with the student asking the master, “What is Buddha mind?”
I’m paraphrasing. The actual question is “What is Buddha?”, but it translates better this way, to Buddha mind, because they're asking about the mental state of the enlightened, not the plump bronze monk most of us will imagine.
So the student asks, “What is Buddha mind?”
And the master replies, “fresh toilet paper.”
Paraphrasing. The master actually says, “a dry shit stick.” But accounting for cultural differences this is essentially the same item. It’s a tool for removing fecal matter from the backside. This one in particular is, as yet, unused.
What does this parable say to me during the time of Covid? I don’t know. I’m in Mexico and there was no toilet paper frenzy, for whatever reason that may be. I have theories.
But as I sit here, months from making my last prose post, I look back on that time :
day after day
night after night
sleepless and scrolling
grinding teeth through
news sites and twitter feeds
article after article
story after story
sucking words like oxygen
til I’m gasping for air
til my head may explode
choking on letters
like the drowning on waves
I think I may understand
how Buddha mind
is a clean sheet
of toilet paper
for some shit
to stick to it
Vent in D Flat
i have a friend from high school
who keeps visiting war torn countries
to save dogs
and do yoga
and i see the photos of sun salutations
and posts about how gross the air is
and how the people are rude
and sometimes i think
i should reach out
but i don’t know where to start
and then i think
i’m probably an alcoholic, so,
who am i to criticize
active members of a community
not to mention
half of our graduating class
has either OD’d
or been to rehab
so maybe poverty tourism
and white savior complexes
are excusable by comparison
i never reach a conclusion
i never reach out
i open a bottle of prosecco
95 pesos at Costco
and look out over the Mexican sunset
passing another day
under the umbrella
of trying to
“figure it all out”
Letting the Wild Flowers Take Over
The letter didn’t mean much when I had first opened it. I had been expecting it for a decade. Knew the kind of person I was. And I knew the kinds of people they were. I remembered the last time they came to “appraise” the house, They had pulled up in something called a Slingshot, something that looks like a motorcycle made out of two sidecars. The song Tainted Love was playing so loud they had to shout at each other.
I had hidden the hand painted Black Lives Matter sign that had sat in our front yard for two years unmoved. I pulled it out of the grass. I pushed it back in the grass. I pulled it out again. I turned in a circle holding the sign above my head. I knew they would ask us to leave if they saw it. How dare we, this used to be their mother’s house, a true Texas woman. It was better to avoid eviction but I keep thinking how easy it is, how easy to pull a sign out of the yard and then just be courteous. How easy it is to avoid subjects that cause conflict. You can’t just hide your blackness the same way you can hide poster board.
And here I was holding the letter anyway.
“At least they gave us three months.”
“You’ve been here ten years!”
“We’re sick of it though.”
“Doesn’t mean we should be kicked out.”
“They’re selling it.”
“They’re tearing it down.”
“The city has changed.”
“The people in the city have changed! They’re using their money to change it. By buying up the property and kicking out the poor people. You’re getting pushed out. Don’t you see that?”
Piles of bags on the lawn. Trash is full. Couch, my favorite couch, sitting by the curb. I call a company that will pick up the mattresses for a hundred dollars each. We leave them in the bedrooms. Her car will never make it to Mexico. A man down the street gives us three hundred dollars “as is”. The house is showing its neglect. The scratches and scrapes and peeling paint. It’s hollow and gross without the art and lights and fabrics. Pitiable. Broken windows and stained carpets. Holes in the drywall, floppy fan blades and exposed wires. Full of asbestos.
I stare out the window into the park. My first week on the street the road was closed off for a bounce house. Tejano music ringing in my ears. Smoked pig in the air. Flock of chickens pecking in the dirt in front of the house with the Latin Kings graffiti on the door.
“Neighborhood’s loud but the rent is just right.”
“You’d be moving in on the first.”
“Or the day before.”
“Oh yeah, you want to move in on Halloween?”
“Sure,” I said, feeling like a conquistador. “I’ll take it.”
“You guys moving out?”
Matt was standing in his front yard with his hand on his hip. He and Liz had moved in almost two years ago. They renovated the place next door and filled a dumpster in the street with all of the appliances, windows, doors, and pretty much everything else, a lot of it was just put in by the kids of my former neighbor, before they put it up for sale. He cuts his lawn twice a week and resents me for growing ours long, letting the wild flowers take over. He’s holding a brand new lawn mower, this one much smaller than the last one. A tiny, neon green nascar with blades.
“Yeah. They’re selling it.”
“Aw, thats too bad,” he lies, “we never really got to hang out.”
“It’s not on the market yet. You can probably put an offer in now if you want. You’re in real estate, right?” I hear myself say. Why am I always so helpful and nice.
“Hmm,” he looks at our safe haven, “thanks, maybe I will. Listen, good luck. And take care.” He reaches out his hand.
“The trucks loaded.”
“With what? It’s all on the lawn! We didn’t take anything!”
“This is what you wanted, right? A clean start. Not to lug around our old junk and baggage.”
“It’s my home! My only constant for ten years. The only security I have. I have no health insurance. I haven’t seen a doctor since I was in high school. My teeth are falling out. I haven’t talked to my family in years. It’s the only thing…”
“What choice do we have? It’s over. They told us to leave.”
“Entonces?” Her mother asks.
“Ya, nada mas. Listo.”
Tears streaming down my face. I don’t understand. This place is an obvious dump. It’s broken in every way. They are clearly slum lords. It’s nothing. Just go, forget about it. There’s bigger things out there. I feel sick. I feel like trash. I feel embarrassed for leaving my trash. I can’t even leave a restaurant without stacking my plates for the server.
“Vienes o no?’ she says, “we are going. Ahorita.”
I lock the front door and leave through the back, passing my little bamboo plant that can’t cross the California checkpoint. It’s too heavy for its stalk so I wrap a ribbon around it and stick it to a post with a thumb tack.
I slide into the back seat of the pickup truck. It starts to rain. I watch the water seep into the fabric of my favorite couch as we slowly pull away, making sure the little U-haul trailer is still securely behind us.
Anxiety in A minor
It’s 1:42 am
And I’m up
About the nature of reality
They say the Universe is 13.8 billion years old
And 93 Billion light years wide
I look up a light year
Which they say is 6 trillion miles long
But I don’t understand this
I have no context for numbers this big
Earth is 6 billion years old
But humans have only had hands for 2.6 million years
And that seems like a relatively short amount of time
But also that’s an unfathomable amount of time
To spend evolving all this DNA
Just so I can have hands
And no good ideas for what to do with them
Speaking of DNA
There are 204 billion atoms in the human genome
But I don’t understand DNA
The internet says there’s
7 billion billion billion
Atoms in the human body
And 100 billion neurons
Forming 100 trillion neural connections
In the human mind
It’s 2:05 am
I scratch my head because I can’t grasp these numbers
But I’m worried I haven’t made enough neural connections
To make it through the Alzheimer’s stage in life
It runs in my family
But I don’t understand these things either
Maybe they’re in my DNA
They say DNA is only 3 meters long
6 if you stretch it out
I can picture that, I think
But I probably imagine it
Out of proportion
It’s 2:41 am
And I’m not sure what I should be doing
I drink some hot water from the electric kettle
And some tequila Pancho gave me for Christmas
I read that most of the atoms in your body are hydrogen
2/3 they say
And that hydrogen has an unstable relationship to its electrons
Because it only has 1
And the valence shell likes to be full
Which takes 2
So the atom drops the electron
Or picks 1 up
Changing its charge
To either positive or negative
Making the atom an ion
And most bodily fluids are made of ions
Because Hydrogen is so fickle
Or unstable, I guess
It’s why we have the pH scale
Negative ions means it’s acidic
It’s 3:03 am and I drink some more tequila
It’s probably full of negative ions
Because it’s acidic
Or maybe I don’t understand ions
But it hurts my teeth either way
I switch back to the Universe
I capitalize “Universe” now because I don’t believe in God
But that seems silly because wouldn’t that be idolizing something else
I shake my head and agree with myself
Then I read that as much as 90 percent of the Universe
Is made of dark matter
And dark energy
But it doesn’t react to electromagnetic radiation
Which means it doesn’t react to light
So no one has ever seen it
And it might not even exist
And I think about the Universe being 90 percent
Of something that no one has ever seen
And my body is made out of how many billions
And billions and billions
That I’ve never seen
And now its 3:19 am
And I’m panicking
Because the infinitesimally small
And the infinitely large
Are crashing in my head
And I can’t keep track of which one
I’m thinking about
And it makes my heart race
And I picture red blood vessels
Racing through my tubes
Made of tiny little atoms
Bodily fluids so they’re probably ions
And then I feel the space outside of me
The 93 billion light years
Full of dark matter
And how far that is
Through the wall
Through every wall
And the floor
And the ceiling
And then I remember a thing I read
About Dissociative Identity Disorder
And how each personality has its own set of physiological eccentricities
Different eyeglass prescriptions
Different dominant handedness
And I think about my hands
Which I’m sitting on
Because I’m not sure what to do with them
After so many years of evolution
Which makes me feel guilty
So I sip the tequila
With the negative ions
And hope I’m not just a personality
How the body changes eyesight
And how precarious
And insecure reality is
And now its 3:25
And I’m rubbing my feet together
And clenching my teeth
And avoiding my problems
Because I have no money
And I wonder if all this stuff is not for me
Because I panic
But as a human I have a curiosity
Which leads me to ask questions
But we don’t have time for the Unknown
Space exploration is for rich people
They call it a Mars colony for a reason
We make coffee
And shake martinis
And now it’s 3:51 am
And I can’t sleep
And I’m going to die
And I’ll never know
What I could be doing
With these hands
The Desire to Die
The desire to die is also a desire to be reborn. Which means the desire to die is not the desire to physically die, but maybe to kill the ego, or the alter-ego, or just the rut you're in at the moment. The desire to die is not the desire to destroy physical tissue, it is the desire to end a psychic chain of thought, a repetitive sequence of negative feedback loops, a grim series of interactions and relationships that have disguised the unknown future as an inescapable, inevitable, and predictable repetition of monotonous, meaningless, passionless pain. The desire to die is the desire to live.
*I originally wrote this as an inspired comment to a post by @Riley_45. After reading it over I think I like it enough to post on its own. I'll leave the link to original post in comments.
The Most Useless Time of Day
She ran her finger across the tip of her shoe. It was smooth and dusty, cracked in places from the pressure of being bent. The holes in the bottom were starting to cause her socks to rip in the same places. She put her finger through the one in her heel and tickled the soft skin on the bottom of her foot.
She pulled a small green notebook out of her pocket and began scribbling down numbers, adding and subtracting, crossing out and circling. Her bus bounced by a group of young girls walking with back packs and soda cans. They were pointing and shouting at something on the other side of the street. She twirled her head around in her seat, pressing her forehead to the glass as the scene rushed by.
She returned to her notebook. The number “four” was circled.
The bus dipped before popping up onto the bridge to cross the river. It was peaceful how, even moving at 40 miles an hour, the water seemed to sit quietly still. Unlike the trees and signs and street lights whooshing by in blurry streaks.
“Three weeks late,” she mumbled, thinking back to the letter from the electric company. She’d thrown it out so that her roommates wouldn’t see that she hadn’t paid it yet. They would turn the power off this Friday. She had four days.
Three thirty in the afternoon. The ride home from work was always the same. An unopened novel lay in her lap with the same disposition as her hair gracing her neck. Her forehead, two or three shades lighter that the rest of her face, once again pressed against the tinted window in the back, corner seat. Everything was spinning in her wood chipper brain. Even the beer in her fridge seemed no more appealing than the cobwebs lining the baseboards of her mint green bathroom.
She dropped her head between her knees and wished it would just fall off. It would roll straight down the aisle painting the rubber floor red and then smash into the ticket machine. The passengers would flee their seats screaming. Blood splattered across the driver’s horrified face. She could feel it. How much lighter her body would be without this sad head to drag around.
“Hey, excuse me, miss... You dropped this,” a boy next to her interrupted, holding out the fat, overly ambitious novel she’d been “reading” for the past 3 months.
“I could never finish this one,” he said, handing her the paper brick. He had soft eyes and a genuine warmth about him.
“Oh, thank you,” she said, smiling, a bit of the rigidity melt off of the structure of her cheek bones.
“Yeah, I’m... fine. I don’t know, I guess. I just hate this time of day, you know. Nothing happens. The sun beats down, and it’s just so bright and so hot. I can’t think at all. It makes my brain feel like a melted pint of ice cream. It’s the most useless time of day. No wonder the rest of the world spends it drinking tea and napping.”
“Ha! Well, not the whole world,” he laughed.
“Yeah, maybe not. But I still see where they’re coming from. It’s enough to make you want to drop dead. Just stop right there and sleep for a thousand years.”
He didn’t respond. He glanced at the holes in her shoes and back at her face. She knew that her hair was greasy and looked like a child’s experiment with yarn and glue. Her eyes sunken into dark pits. She was tired and she’d meant what she’d said. He was sensing her sadness, she thought. Recognition crossed his face like the pedestrians on the street, conscious yet unconcerned. He studied her casually for another fraction of a second before seemingly becoming self conscious and shifting his gaze back to his own footwear.
The bus screeched to a short stop.
She turned back to the window. A homeless man had fallen asleep on the traffic median. He was still clutching his sign in his gloved hands. A dog stood beside him, staring straight ahead, tethered to the base of a yield sign. Surrounded by speeding cars, he sat there panting in the Texas sun, waiting for the man to wake up.