Friday, September 06, 2019

Writers Retreat

August 24, 2019 4:16 Saturday, near Lake Kinderhook — or is it Kinderhook Lake? Kind of near Albany.

They flooded the amusement park, so all the rides are underwater. The park was for the kinder, a place to put them while the adults amused themselves at the speakeasies on islands in the lake. After prohibition was repealed there was no need for speakeasies and after World War Two the amusement park was closed. I don’t know if this is true or that I got it right.

New York State, that vast area people from New York City refer to as “Upstate,” is full of mysteries. It was called the Burned Over District, after a wild fire of apocalyptic religious revival swept Western New York in the early 1800s. Joseph Smith received golden tablets from an angel in Panama Rocks near Buffalo. A visionary Iroquois leader named Handsome Lake brought back traditional ways of the Longhouse. Spiritualism also took hold in 19th century New York, with Lily Dale the center for contacting the dead. My mother spoke of Lily Dale with holy dread. Her father was an evangelist and her sister was a child evangelist and she married a man who visited her father because he was called to be a minister and was looking for advice. Papa suggested Dad go to the Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, which is how I happened to be born in Kentucky. My sister was born in Jamestown, New York, during the second world war, I am a baby boomer.

New York is full of mysteries and family histories and graves and a grave waits for me in Chautauqua County in the Southern Tier of the Empire State. The grave at Sunset Hill that holds the ashes of my wife is next to my parents’ graves. My name is already on the grave marker that was finally installed last year, but I haven’t seen it yet.

We thought we were descended from Iroquois because one of the three Weakland brothers who came to America in the 1600s married “an Indian Princess” and the Iroquois inhabited New York. Whether she was royalty or not, we don’t know her name or her tribe, but it might have been the Piscataway, and I’m guessing she was already a Catholic when she met my male ancestor, who was also Catholic. We liked to imagine she was Mohawk, but I doubt she belonged to one of the Six Nations of the Confederation, because she and her husband probably met in Maryland, according to others investigating the family tree. On my mother’s side — English, French, and that unknown tribe. On my father’s side, Swedish.

That’s more than enough family history. What is going on RIGHT NOW?
I’m sitting outside of Eugene and Janet’s house near the lake of Kinderhook, a place with a Dutch name, where a local was selling a 400 year old piece of Dutch furniture for a mere $500 until Janet talked him out of it.
“Take it to the Antiques Roadshow and find out what it is really worth,” she advised.”

What is anything really worth?

I came here with five other people from The City to sit under the trees and write. We are in a writing class. Every summer members of the class come up here to do this. This is my first time on this writing retreat and I pray I am up to the task. So far, as you can see for yourself, it doesn’t look good.

As soon as I was seated in the backseat of the Dodge Caravan the nausea came over me. I’m feeling better now, not good, but better. Is it psychological? I was worried I’d get car sick, so I got carsick? Do I get sick when I even think of leaving The City? It’s hard enough to leave my studio, to leave Brooklyn, and it took about an hour for us to get out of Manhattan and over the George Washington Bridge into the Garden State, the detour you take to get to Upstate New York.

I did not vomit but my stomach was unsettled and my sinuses were unhappy, and are now not as unhappy.

I’m trying to get at what is happening RIGHT NOW.
I am recovering from the drive. A red pickup truck is backing a boat trailer toward the lake. A mourning dove calls and the sounds of insects mix with the sounds of tinnitus, because wherever I go I’m always inside my head.

This notebook I am writing in was made in Vietnam and was distributed by CVS Pharmacy, it says on the back.
“All CVS Pharmacy products are satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.”
It wasn’t my money. Harold gave us these notebooks and if I don’t write something good, better than this, I’ll have to give HIM his money back. 
“Make Today Magical” in silver letters on the purple cover. If it’s not magical, your money back.

I saw a flag in town that was half American and half Confederate. We are in Upstate NY, as I said earlier. My New York ancestors were in the Union Army. The Union Forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah. I was told we won that war (shouting the battle cry of freedom).

I’m sitting closer to the lake now, behind Patty and Ken’s house. It is very cloudy. I was hoping to see the Milky Way tonight. I’ll have to be satisfied with seeing Upstate New York. The lake is 365 acres, I was told.

“I don’t know how acres translate to water,” Patty said. I don’t even know how acres translate to land. I couldn’t tell you the square footage of my studio.

Patty shows me a map of the lake. The lake is a complicated shape.
“I think you have to get out on the lake to see how big it is,” she says to the writers who went on the boat ride. I wasn’t going on a boat ride. I can’t stomach a car ride and I don’t want to vomit into this complicated lake.

I didn’t come to this summer place to get away from home. I’m not staring at this lake because I got tired of staring at the East River. I will never get tired of staring at the East River. I came here to be with these people who write and talk and live their lives.

“Perfect spot to sit and write, huh?”
“It’ll do,” I answer.

Charles, who was also born at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, told us about a man from the Bahamas who came with him to Kentucky and was impressed by all the trees.

“Do people live in trees here?”

That is how it looks here. Like they live in trees. Across the lake is a forest with houses and telephone lines and cars. I am sitting under two big white oak trees. This side must also look like a forest from the other side.
Dean told s about a Native American visitor he had in Manhattan who needed a tree to sit under for his spiritual practice. 

Trees communicate with each other, I’ve heard. They have a communication network, an internet. Do these trees speak to me? If a tree speaks to a deaf man in the forest does it say anything? The other trees hear and they also hear when one falls. I was happy when Ken confirmed that this is a White Oak. “The human name doesn’t mean shit to a tree,” sang Grace Slick at Woodstock, fifty years ago this month.

Far away Amazon rain forests are burning.
This tree is trying to tell me about that, I’d guess.

God becomes the dwelling place we build for ourselves. I’m reading St Teresa of Avila, who likens the mystical experience of prayer to the silkworm who builds a cocoon out of its own substance and then dies and is reborn as a white butterfly.

Ego death, I guess. Transformation. Change your mind, change my mind.

Charles told me about a man he knows who does sweat lodge rituals. He is connected to the Native American Church and, once in a while, when he feels the call, he does a peyote ceremony.

The silk worm eats mulberry leaves. Should I eat peyote buttons?

I’m reading The Interior Castle, by Teresa, because I found a copy among my wife’s books. I don’t think Lori got around to reading it and I wish I was reading it to her.
Our mornings would begin when I’d wake her up at 7 and bring coffee and cereal to bed. After we ate, I’d read to her from a book she selected. I read all of Jane Austen to her and a bunch of Henry James and Ulysses and Moby Dick and Journey to the End of Night and Charles Dickens and Tristram Shandy and a lot of others.

Anyway, last week I started reading The Interior Castle and am developing a crush on Teresa. I am only as far as the fifth dwelling and there are seven dwellings in her literary crystal house of mansions.
Teresa is very personal. She was writing a guide to prayer for nuns and she often expresses doubt about her ability to describe what she wants to describe. There is honesty in her writing. All I knew about her was the Bernini sculpture, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, and I’d read her description of the ecstatic experience depicted, of being speared in the heart by an angel. There have been no such transcendental impalements yet in this book, but there are two more dwelling places to read about before I get to the center of the crystalline castle.

Before I am reduced to a box of ashes, before what remains of me has been burned, before someone puts that box in that grave in Chautauqua County, before then, is Now.
What is happening RIGHT NOW?

Last night they were talking about death and hospice and seeing people die, or not seeing them die, but seeing them dead. I didn’t want to talk about seeing her die and I’m not going to write about it now. I don’t know if I can write honestly about it RIGHT NOW. They were just telling ghost stories, but are the spirits of the dead among us?

Some of my ancestors are buried in Elmira, New York, which is where my mother was born. I want to visit that cemetery again when I drive across New York to see the grave marker that has my name on it next to hers. I don’t know when I’ll feel like driving there, probably never, so I might have to go when I don’t feel like it.

Janet said we could look at the giant heads on our way back. Sixty foot high heads some sculptor made. There is one you can get inside and climb up and look out the eyes like I’m now looking out my eyes from inside my small head.

Harold and Charles are writing. I am writing. Eugene is doing something in the yard with flower pots. Janet is inside. I don’t know if Teresita and Dean are up yet.

I am weaving a cocoon out of ink, I write.
No, that’s no good, I write.
Stop writing about writing, I write.

My late aunt, the child evangelist who grew up to be an adult evangelist, and who died around the time my parents were also dying, had a cottage by Lake Erie in Barcelona, New York and we’d stay there some summers and this place reminds me a little of that place and those people. A chipmunk hurries past. Dean arrives and vapes at the outside table.

Teresa was told to write by her superior. Harold suggested we write and read what we wrote at brunch today. Then we’ll go back to the City and I’ll go back to the studio, to my soul’s true home, and I’ll make some real good pictures and I’ll write something real good that isn’t about writing.

Most of you here at Lake Kinderhook didn’t know that my wife died four years ago this month, 2:30 AM, August 1, 2015. None of you knew her. It took another two years before her sister was able to get to New York so we could bury the ashes together. Jimmy came from Richmond to drive us across the state. Lisa came from Texas. The three of us and our friend Liv were with Lori when she stopped breathing.

Bereavement really isn’t what you expect it to be. You have to become someone else. I didn’t know and I don’t know and this writing I’m doing — I said I wasn’t going to write about writing — but this writing is in hope that I’ll forget what I’m trying to say and say something else, a confession, maybe, something I could tell myself, and then tell you, about being here. Maybe not WHY we’re here, but THAT we’re here together, RIGHT NOW.

 The year I buried the box of ashes is the year I started going to Middle Church, which is where I attend Harold’s writing class. Harold gives us a word to prompt us and sometimes I write something that isn’t bad and that is honest. Harold said that the weekend itself is the prompt and that’s why I’ve written this magical mess, messing up this purple notebook he gave me.

I wish I could take you to the center of a crystalline castle, but I don’t know what to say about that. I want to get to that place I’ve heard about where you see all the suffering, the universal suffering, and you know everything is alright, and as it should be, and I want to write what I can about it, and weave a cocoon of ink to leave behind with the box of ashes when I fly away. 

                                        Harold Slazer

                                        The audience at Lake Kinderhook

Friday, August 02, 2019

Four years later

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, 
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of his house
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon

Three gouache paintings on by Lori Ellison, who died August 1, 2015
All are 8 1/2" X 11" panels.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Trick or Treatment


This was Adam’s response to his brother’s question, How are you doing?
Adam has a terminal illness, is how he is doing, and is beyond all treatment except the palliative. He pretty much only gets out of bed to go to the bathroom. He can still walk and get around outside, if he wants to, but he never wants to. When he has to go out to see his doctors, to submit to some tests, to be scanned and handled and abused by instruments, he is scared and miserable and thinks only of getting back to where he can be scared and miserable in his own bed. He was nothing before he was born and he will return to nothing before the end of the year. Life has been nothing all along. At least pain is something, even psychic pain, but it is too much now. If he wasn’t terrified of death he would kill himself. 

His brother’s attempts to offer reasonable consolation have been useless. Adam answered Aasif’s timid suggestion that perhaps happiness can be found only in submission to the will of God with a scornful cough. Neither of them had ever been religious.

Aasif didn’t know what to say. He was desperate to help Adam any way he could to manage this existential emergency. He had come across the phrase “existential emergency” in an article he read about new research in the treatment of that malady at a university hospital. Terminally ill patients, like his brother, who were suffering from depression and anxiety, like his brother, were given a dose of psilocybin. The results have been significant and encouraging.

So why not volunteer for the study? It would be a change. Get high for a few hours. Maybe it’ll help.

Maybe I’ll flip out.


I’m already in Hell.

Adam called the number Aasif had obtained. He filled out paperwork and endured preliminary talk therapy sessions. The day of the acid test arrives. The session is in a hospital room tarted up in colorful fabrics, flowers, and abstract paintings to look like a New Age den. It is meant to provide a serene setting for the psychedelic experience. 

Trust and let go. Be open to what happens, the therapist reminds him.

The capsule is in a handmade ceramic bowl and is presented to him like a sacrament. He swallows it and puts on the eye shades and the earphones. Some kind of non-offensive world music evokes Mexican deserts or Tibetan ceremonies and his mind wanders and he is bored. He removes the earphones.

And then he is off, launched into something scarier than he has ever known, a super nova of sensations, a whirlwind of horrific visions of zombie crusades and burning skyscrapers and ICE Nazis in red baseball caps crucifying Buddha, waterboarding Moses. One has the Prophet in a chokehold and others surround a cage in which the Brown Christ, a very young boy wrapped in Mylar, is weeping. 

Projections, he remembers. These are projections of my own fears. Let go, go with the flow, be open. The hallucinations can teach him something. What are you doing in my brain? he asks. His own laughing corpse confronts him. What are YOU doing in MY brain? — but then a wave compassion comes over Adam for the corpse, for that sad self he was, and the dried out husk of his ego crumbles to dust and is blown away by the breath of the Creator.

A stranger on a strange path is walking forever down a dark damp narrow tunnel, a birth canal. 

To be reborn you must be reconceived, a woman’s voice suggests. 

The stranger carries an old iron lantern that holds a very faint light, no greater than the light of a firefly  and he can barely see the way, but as he stumbles along the light grows brighter, lighting further ahead until he comes to the Dead End, a grey concrete wall that extends on either end and is higher than he can see. He lifts his light, illuminating the barrier that now shines like white gold and sees it is not a wall but a Door with no determinate shape — now it is square and now it is round with concentric circles, wheels within wheels. He steps closer and sees the Door is covered with intricate carvings, a pictorial calligraphy in which is written all that is known. Within the revolving circles the history of the universe is depicted as wheels of creation and destruction from Big Bang and onward to the genesis of the Milky Way, the birth of the Solar System, the formation of our planet, the birthing of our species and the long human pilgrimage that is the evolution of consciousness, a crazy story of oppression and suffering and struggle, and his own family history, refugees from a holy land full of holes, coming to America, and his own birth in a hospital bed and his own death in another hospital bed. These images before which he stands are not static but change as he reads them and he understands that the Door is a kind of hologram that shows the totality of information he has stored in his mind, everything he thinks he knows, the world he thought he knew, the self he thought he was, and the ongoing activity of processing it all.

There is a soft knocking. Someone  on the other side? Who’s there? Trust and let go and be open. He finds a hole at the center of the Door and puts his hand inside and the Door is gone and all the suffering drops away, like the booster stage of an Apollo rocket, and he is gone, beyond all time and gravity and sorrow. 

He takes off the eye shades.

How are you? asks the therapist.

Beautiful! Adam is laughing to find himself in the here and now.

Tell me about it.

I don’t think I have the words. It was intense and profound and I found something I didn’t know I was looking for. Paradise has found me here on this couch.

Fascinating, the therapist says. Sounds like an extraordinary experience.

That was some heavy shit you gave me.

How would you feel, the therapist asks, if I told you you had been given the placebo?


Yes, you were given an active placebo, Niacin. At most, you should’ve felt some tingling.

No way. You made a mistake and gave me the psilocybin.

That is not possible. We follow a careful protocol and I took inventory of the capsules. There is no doubt you took the placebo.

Adam is laughing again. Perfect! Perfect!  It doesn’t matter! How it happens doesn’t matter!  The veil has been pulled away.

The therapist regards him passively. He is wearing his professional mask. Adam sees this clearly. It is the psychology game and the doctor doesn’t think this data will be useful for his study.

It is possible you had a spontaneous psychotic episode. It might be best to keep you here for observation. If necessary we could prescribe an anti-psychotic.

Because my hallucinations weren’t real hallucinations? You think I was hallucinating hallucinations? That won’t be necessary. I’m fine.

Adam called his brother to tell him he didn’t have to come get him.

How was it?

Awesome. I can’t wait to tell you all about it. You’ll laugh your ass off.

How are you?

Wonderful. Beautiful.

God is great, Aasif replies in Arabic.

It is a perfect late summer afternoon Adam steps into and the city is alive and glowing in the clear light of reality. He is inspired to walk home over the bridge. Halfway across he stops and looks over the river at the glorious sunset. Past the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge the Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor.

He raises his fist and salutes her.

Monday, July 15, 2019

some of this year's work

benediction wheel
ink and acrylic on wood
18" diameter

mythopoetic intersections
acrylic and ink on wood
15" X 32"

ritual figure
acrylic and ink on wood
20" X 25"

a dance to spring
ink and acrylic on wood
18" X 24"

descending angel
ink on paper and wood panel
9" X 12"

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Sometimes I ask you,
as if you are here to ask,
Where did you go?

I am looking in a drawer that is still full of your stuff —
scraps of paper with phone numbers or notes or aphorisms, receipts, stuff that was yours —
and your absence once again throws me off kilter and into the terror of absolute loneliness, loss, and oblivion.
The Pit, Sheol.

I look at your unfinished painting I hung on the wall, so your beauty is always with me.

These are the days of the dead, late October, early November, when we visit the catacombs and look at the skeletons of loved ones.
These are the days when we make sugar images of that which we fear most and children put on masks and costumes of their fantasies of desire or terror,
and all of us enjoy the colors of death on the trees.

Are you in nature, in the sunset sky you stared at as you were so long in dying?
Almost as an infant stares at the world, you stared at the world you were leaving.
Did your breath really return to that which made it possible to begin with? To life universal? The breath of God?

I remember and I can never forget when your breathing stopped and your sister tapped me, she was taking your pulse and it stopped while I was kissing your forehead.

These are the days of the dead, and we tend to our shrines or tell ghost stories or watch the parable of Linus in the pumpkin patch.

Linus, who stopped the show to read from the gospel the meaning of Christmas, and then started his own cult, projecting his messiah upon a fat orange figure, and doesn’t Linus now become a symbol of the evangelicals who revere a hollow jack o’ lantern whose candle will one day sputter into the void? 

But today is not that day, 
because these are the days of the dead.

These are the days that grow shorter as the darkness spreads, and grow cold and frozen.
In weeks to come we will gather together to keep each other warm and to have our harvest feasts, and ask the Lord’s blessing, and light Advent candles, but now I am still looking for the gloves and caps and scarves, and it hasn’t started snowing, yet, but it will soon. 

You and I watched a movie where the living dead came out of their graves, following an inscrutable demand.
One day I will wake up from that nightmare
and turn off that horror movie, but not today, 
because these are the days of the dead.

Why did I dream of you last night?
Why were you so young and beautiful and dancing in the yard?

“The ghost is nothing but a stick with a sheet on it,”
you said.

You, who drank the darkness.

Friday, October 05, 2018

'ell if I know

We should be able to agree on facts, empirical facts, but if we cannot even agree that there is an elephant in the room, and that the elephant is shitting on the carpet, and eating all the food, and breaking things, and is feeling cramped in my apartment, into which he was not invited, and if the problem here is that YOU are the elephant, we’ll have to sedate you and remove you to some place out doors where you’ll feel comfortable and free-range, free from primate interference.

But when the elephant in the room says, “There is no elephant in the room,” he is speaking correctly, because he is in truth a rhinoceros.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Man of constant sorries

I’m sorry about the time I called you the C word
and I’m sorry about that time I called you the B word
and I’m sorry for that time I said "F word you" to you in front of your kid

and I am sorry I scared you that time I broke a window with my fist

and I’m sorry for those times I didn’t pull my own weight with housework 
and I’m sorry for being such a slob

I’m sorry I stared at your breasts and your ass and I’m sorry I touched you inappropriately 

I’m sorry for stringing you along, for leading you on, misleading you into thinking I and only I could give you what I and only I knew what you needed
and I’m sorry for not knowing what you needed and and not giving it to you

I’m sorry for my existential cowardice and I’m sorry that existential cowardice is an issue for me

I’m sorry for giving in to despair so readily and attacking myself and turning into the black hole that you stumbled into

I’m sorry for when my self-righteous rage burst out at you while I slashed your self esteem to pieces with my words

I’m sorry I didn’t ask you what contraception you were using or brought my own condoms and I am sorry I was often unprepared and too often impotent and I’m sorry for my immaturity and irresponsibility and confusion about sexual ethics and sexual politics and lost in the galaxy of feelings and needs that arise in the erotic encounters and I’m sorry about all that porn

I’m sorry I did not have the confidence that I had or could acquire the skills to be a husband to you and the father of a child

I’m sorry I will never be able to tell you how important you are to me and how grateful I am that we were together

It is easy to correct my politics and easy to talk women’s equality women’s health women’s right to choose and to read Betty Friedan and easy to express outrage about sexual violence and sexual harassment and chant Her Body Her Choice outside Trump Tower,
and the political personal is the personal political, 
but person to person you and me could be so complicated and painful

we were once so simple and happy 
face to face in a holy space we know is real
and I’m sorry we didn’t stay in that place
and let it slip our minds and forgot
and I’m sorry we became so estranged from ourselves
and I’m sorry I became so strange and 

I’m sorry I’m so, so, strange