A Seven-Terraced Triple-Journey through the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu

by Tom Wolpert on February 12, 2022

Chuang Tzu comes to visit on the terrace of the Coffee House of Grace, my imaginary, spiritual rest-stop near Jerusalem-from-above. We read over his book of brief anecdotal stories, called the Inner Chapters. They are related to disclosing the Tao, an interior, spontaneous type of spiritual or philosophic practice which may be translated as the ‘Way.’ These stories operate by indirect means, rather like parables, but since Tao is in some ways intended to be indescribable, the parables are shifting, mysterious, indirect in their approach to what they intend to communicate. Nevertheless, in the practice of Tao, one is always encouraged to do what one is meant to do. If that sounds vague and rather circular, welcome to the study of Tao.

In response, here I recite to him this poem, in which I first characterize his parables, one at a time, before responding to each with some comments, my own story and Christian spirituality. In a sense, I’m doing what I was meant to do, respond to a form of spiritual poetry with my own, without compulsion or reward (a bit of Tao on my end). It seems to me that fostering such dialogue, reciting our travelogues, is what a coffee house does best. For those interested, I provide some additional information about Chuang Tzu (also known as Zhuangzi) and identify my translators and sources at the end of this piece.

I. Wandering, Boundless and Free

Chuang Tzu, you don’t disclose your sorrows or your sins, but sail a heavenly lake.
No itinerary revealed for your travels; no sad exiles recorded, no distant-icy peaks.
Bright-Posterity, Two-Moon, Northern and Southern Darkness appear, transforming.
Elemental wings, clouds, churning vast gales, kaleidescoping in spreading yu and wu,
heat waves, dust and ash, shimmering, buffeted, resting, turned azure endless blue.
At 16 I stepped through a Broad Street dentist’s door to hitch-hike to a golden city,
its summer of love, hypnotic music, the call of a mushroom-enthroned caterpillar.
In the beginning, Chuang Tzu, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth
was formless, empty. Spirit-regarded, darkness hovered over the face of the deep.

You present geometry, space, time – the cicada and dove barely fly to the next tree,
but laugh at great distances, dawn mushrooms never see the moon wax and wane.
A mustard seed may float in a tiny puddle, yet the cup carrying that water will not.
The quail thinks that her fluttering dozen-yard flight is a limit unyielding. Chuang,
you observe the world outside-in, to consider the vast miles, the length of a seed.
My hitch-hiker’s map ran – Pittsburgh, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, St. Louis,
the Mississippi, new to bright eyes, unrolling under my feet, reaching Route 66.
Light, expanses, separations of great waters, sky, land, seas – God spoke clearly,
they came into existence, He declared them Good. Word-Light came to the earth.

Wise men take office, govern virtuously enough, meet the day’s standards – but
Chuang Tzu, you think of them like the quails – flying a few yards, satisfied to reach
the next bush. Indifferent to praise or blame, you are the Master Bright-Beauty
who laughs. You easily dispute boundaries between splendor and ruin. You would
be like Lieh Tzu, riding the wind, selfless, enlightened yet meritless, nameless, free.
Detained in Oklahoma, forlorn at Elk City, I took the Greyhound bus to Los Angeles.
Broad America unwrapped, rails across Flagstaff, tan California hills floating ahead.
God made for us a Garden, seen and unseen. Male and female, he created, blessed,
instructed us. All garden-gifts given save one, but that one came with warning-words.

Chuang Tzu, in a nation on the verge of chaos, your words are like a beautiful girl,
unnoticed by lovers. Your marvelous hats have no buyers. With integrity, embracing
change – why wear life ragged trying to save the world? Floods cannot drown you,
heat cannot scorch you. You are deep in thought, ready to bring order, to give all
beneath heaven, as you search four masters in distant Maiden-Arrow Mountains.
Bus-arrived in San Francisco, walked disheveled Market Street to find Haight-Ashbury.
A corner flower-child greeted me, flat affect, catatonic or trip-inspired, master-less.
You may eat, but was serpent-answered by did God really say? When Eve saw Abel’s
dead body, when Adam saw his child’s corpse, Eve’s face, God’s point grew in clarity.

Life is a seed-gift to grow a five-bushel gourd, is it not, Chuang Tzu? Some foolishly
smash it pieces, finding no use in such monstrosities. Or like a wonderful secret salve,
whose secret-keepers gather sparse profits. You will make a gourd-tub to go sailing,
you arm marines with salve-secrets to win naval battles. Tumbleweeds fill minds
of those who cannot grasp what you see, beyond logic, the obvious, the immediate.
I wandered into a park by Baker Street, where a young man introduced me to sweet-
weeds, Yin and Yang, drawn in dusty figures. Our time passed, well-anesthetized.
Serpent, I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and hers.
He will crush your head. You will strike his heel. Adam, you will return to the ground.

Chuang Tzu, your words are ignored by logicians, as if gnarled, knotted and twisted.
If your words were a tree, so deformed, carpenters could not use them. Your parables
crouch low, hiding, a wildcat waiting for a prey. Immensity is a waste – you search
out a nothing-at-all seed-village, where emptiness stretches. There you would drift,
roam, free-dreaming, unused, unbounded, without enemy – yet, no hiding from death.
I made my path down Haight Street, looking vaguely for shelter, when another runaway
told me of a church and spaghetti. Drifting there, I was harbored in a socialists’-shelter.
Noah’s sacrificial offering looked forward to another savor. Covenant-ground not
cursed, rainbow-peace-sign, even if the heart imagines sin from our youth upwards.

II. A Brief Discussion of Equality

Chuang Tzu, mortal time passes, you drift in thought, hear the wind-driven symphony.
From where? Music arises from emptiness, earth a wind-instrument, another sky-
song emerges mysterious, chorus-transformed, mushrooms from nowhere, day and
night in major key with no beginning. You’re drowning in formless questions: what
makes it this way? You count orifices, coming together, but is it perfect, or ruined?
First trip, staring all night at my own legs. Commune-baked bread and new friends,
Bonnie and Steamboat, street-hawking the Berkeley Barb, trading untethered tales.
God said to Abram, leave your country, your people, your father’s house. Go to the land
I will show you – so he went, blessed, Canaan-destined, Sarai-joined, to the Moreh-tree.

Confused, Chuang Tzu, sorrow-surrounded, turning to your own mind, paradox-query;
like leaving for Shanghai, when you’ve already arrived. Distinctions to you are traps –
both it is and it isn’t, together. If fixed words describe the unfixed, do words matter?
Yes, this, or no, that – does it lead anywhere? You seek illumination, true Tao, the path
of the sage, over the see-saw of yes this, no that. You want yes, no, whole, inexhaustible.
First taste street life, that intoxicant, Golden Gate, the Mission, Cathedral-hills, flowered-
Haight, corner-music, drop a thousand, sad-fated wino-destinies, people ever flowing.
Enemies delivered to his hand, Abram met Melchizedek, King of Righteousness, duel-
blessed, bringing bread, wine. So came the Word, I am your shield, your great reward.

Finger, no-finger, horse, no-horse, Chuang Tzu, you would like to find meaning in not-
meaning, to move beyond whole and broken. You seek some state between real and
unreal – you think then to move free, to arrive. A sage fed monkeys displeased by
three early fruits and four late, yet pleased with four early and three late. But you
see past the monkey-trap, find yes and no together, equality takes two paths at once.
Tourists or tramps, we stood equal on the street. With two feet, eager eyes, I went
broad city-absorbing, touching, tasting, sense-exploring without fear, caution or care.
Look up at heaven. Count the stars, if you can. So shall your offspring be. Abram
believed the Lord – so credited to him as righteousness, sanctified by torch and fire.

Chuang Tzu, you see distinctions made – a blade of grass from a pillar, a leper from
a great beauty. The Way comprehends them together. You steer by the bright light
of confusion and doubt. You would speak and not-speak presence and absence, to
reach one and the same, here and not-here. Inquiring into realms beyond time and
space, but never to divide. To not understand is the flowing inward radiance you seek.
Pretty poisons are good for exotic tours in botanical gardens, tea gardens, museums.
Enhanced senses are habit-forming. The day came when the socialists invited me out.
Hagar ran from Sarai and met the One who sees. Later, sobbing, Hagar gave her son a
drink from a miracle-well. Abraham and Isaac would have their own Moriah-test soon.

Those who are realized, Tao men, are spiritual beings. You seek to be invulnerable,
Chuang Tzu, by a realization. You want to let the ten thousand things join into a
single purity. You ask, how do I know that adoring life is not mere delusion? How
do I know that in hating death we are not simply lost and abandoned children? Tzu,
if there were a great awakening, would you know that was not another dream?
The street life began rubbing its smell on the flower child. Poisons grew harsher,
more regular. I was an easy target for tricksters, but washing dishes was hippy’s pay.
But where is the lamb? Isaac asked. God himself will provide the lamb, said Abraham.
Through your seed, spoke the Angel, all nations, blessed – a faith-promise, for all.

Chuang Tzu, you dreamt you were a butterfly, fluttering on whims, floating happy
and free. You woke to yourself – Chuang Tzu. But who knows – perhaps you were
truly a butterfly, tzu-jan transformed, dreaming you were Tzu? Surely there is some
difference between Chuang Tzu and a butterfly, is there not?? Surely also, is there not
a first transformation of being, one arch-type of the ten thousand transformations??
I wandered into the Asian wing of the Whitney museum, where the Buddhas reposed.
Searching, even poisoned, they never spoke, nor ceased their carved still-tranquility.
Rebekah came with jar on shoulder to Abraham’s servant, drawing water for the traveler
and camels too. The pledged man made his golden bridal request. I will go, she replied.

III. The Key to a Caring Life

Our lives have limits, Chuang Tzu, but knowledge, wisdom, have none. To approach
the limitless is dangerous, foolhardy – to push on, unheeding and unrestrained, thinking
it wisdom, is death. Fame is a trap, to run lawless against the sword of the law is a
trap. The spine stays balanced in meditation; stay on the middle path. Your counsel is
to preserve the body, feed your family, fulfill your life, live out your allotment of years.
First romances, first sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, protective emotions, loves and
failures, ballrooms for Big Brother, scrambling to stay as the summer wound down.
Moses saw the bush was on fire, but it did not burn up. Moses, called God. Moses.
Here I am. Do not come closer. Take off your sandals. You stand on holy ground.

A cook was carving an ox for king Wen Hui. With every rhythmic movement, flesh
whirled and fell away. His perfect hissing blade flashed a Dance of Constant Origins.
The cook explained – Tao, the Way, is what I follow. At first I saw the ox. Later, I saw
beyond the ox. Now, I meet the ox in spirit. My perception and understanding are
dissolved – the spirit moves naturally. The king replied – here’s wisdom for all life!
Telephone call with my father, I’ll stay here. I’ll enroll in high school. He assented.
My new shared room, very corner of Haight & Ashbury, overlooking a street-clock.
The God of Abraham-Isaac-Jacob spoke. I am. I see the misery of my people in Egypt.
I hear their cries. I have come to bring them to a good and spacious land. Go now.

Chuang Tzu, you bring forth the vivid and grotesque. A one-footed General appears,
you ask that oft-repeated question: was this of heaven or of man? You give the answer,
strange appearance is of heaven. A hunchback comes forth from outer chapters, with
Tao-endowed ball-balancing sticky pole, to flawlessly catch cicadas. The hunchback will
not stumble, yet sees nothing except cicada wings. You declare his spirit full-gathered.
Polytechnic High School and its parrot-mascot, built into the side of a hill, now torn
down, motley-city of ethnicity. Crowded halls, eyes everywhere, caring teachers.
What is your name? asked Moses. I Am who I am. Tell the Israelites, I Am has sent you.
Moses resisted. Who gave man his mouth? Who gives him sight, makes him blind?

When Lao Tzu died, Quin-Yi went to pay respects. Quin-Yi wailed thrice and left.
Quin-Yi’s disciples asked, weren’t you Lao’s friend? Is that acceptable mourning?
It is, replied Quin-Yi. The corpse wasn’t him at all. People were wailing there, but
Lao had no such desire, he wanted no wailing. They hide from heaven to so act.
Lao came in season and left in season. The flame is passed from old logs to new.
Poly was school – my poisons were regular indeed, but school was my briar patch.
I smelled as a stale-sweet weed, my roommates were users, but I carried my books.
It so passed, that Moses sang this song to the Lord. The horse and rider are hurled
into the sea. You will hand-plant us, established, on the mountain of your inheritance.

IV. Our Mortal World

Chuang Tzu, you present Tao on the lips of Confucius, emptiness gathering-merging,
a fasting of the mind, to reach a cloistered chamber of still-empty. Paradoxes
dance, conundrums multiply – use no-wings to fly, use no-knowing to know. Counsel
preached to reform a danger-tyrant is perilous – human nature is sinister. You say
find the empty chamber, where light is born, where there is never any “I” at all.
Scholastics upbeat, street life deteriorated. Sunday stroll-arrested by four city police
on Haight, low-level holding-dealing, mug-shot and paddy-wagoned to juvenile hall.
O Lord, how many are my foes! But you are a shield, my Glorious One, who lifts my
head. Fleeing his son Absalom, betrayed, imperiled, David prayed, psalmed, trusted.

Inner destiny and duty, your precepts, Chuang Tzu. Loyal ministers serve kings without
reward. Children love their parents, untaught. Peace for the child, peace for a minister.
Events unfold as they will. Transmit the essence with spare words, or anger may erupt
quickly and spin to bad ends. When men drink it starts well but crashes into disarray.
Put calculating mind away. What is more difficult, you ask, than simply living out life?
Jail on a hilltop, unit for repeat offenders, teenage boys gathered in blue jeans and
white t-shirts, a cappella pop songs in night-halls, prediction of return from a cellie.
My soul is in anguish, the prayer. How long, O Lord? David presented questions.
Who praises you from the grave? Yet, praise will come, ordained from children’s lips.

To teach a cruel and dangerous youth, follow Tao. If he is childish, be the same, if
reckless, act likewise. Draw the child to a new path. Chuang Tzu, you teach the lesson
of the mantis, waving indignant arms against the oncoming cart, noble in its nature
but ignorant-helpless against the looming danger. You tell of a horse-groomer, who
gathered its droppings as if a prize, yet carelessly startled the animal which killed him.
In jail, read Scaramouche, attended class, looked out a narrow cell-window, waited
without impatience until my father, contacted, bought for me a plane ticket home.
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Peril was close. You hear, O Lord, the desire
of the afflicted, so that the man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.

Master carpenter Shi encountered a great oak, an altar tree, at the small village of Qi.
This oak was sized as a mountain, but he did not care. Shi walked briskly by while
his apprentice gaped, to later ask why. “It’s waste wood – no good,” replied old Shi,
“useless for boats, coffins, doors or pillars.” Then the oak appeared to Shi in a dream,
declaring: “I have long been useless. So I grow. What, wasted mortal, do you know?”
At week’s end I was guard-escorted, a young hippy led through the airport concourse
in street-badboy handcuffs. But the airline refused me, not ready for a lone juvenile.
Lord, sought David, who dwells in your sanctuary, on your hill? Don’t abandon me to
a grave. When cords of death entangle, prevent that your Holy One would see decay.

Chuang Tzu, you call grotesque characters to the stage for spiritual monologues.
Crippled Shu has a chin down on his belly, skull below shoulders, pigtails skyward,
intestines bulging, ribs sagging. To eat, he takes in laundry and sews. When men
are drafted for war, Shu looks tough but stays put. Yet, when grain and firewood
are charity-given, he collects enough to share. Even the deformed may follow Tao.
Next day, back to the airport, hands uncuffed, to fly home. Met by my father and
brother at the airport, without reproach or questions – Quaker state autumn quiet.
Drawn from deep waters to dwell in the Lord’s house. Lift up your heads, O ye gates,
Eternal doors, so the King of Glory, Lord of Hosts, may come in. Thus, David’s Way.

By his gate in Chu, Confucius met the madman-greeter Jie Yu, who began to chant:
The dove of peace won’t coo but wails! Stay fearful far from stony jails!
Bad, soon drained is all my luck! Muddy trouble hard to duck!
Draw battle lines, then frightened flee! Pointed thorns to tear at me!
My feet run red! Bleeding, bleeding, blood rushes from my head!
Chuang Tzu, would you be mad, a wandering lunatic, useless? Would you be a
carriage greeter, a catcher in the rye? Is your escape spiritual, or just desperate?
Father’s house, public school, caught a Dutch girl’s eye, USA high school saga.
Busboy weekend-work, football games, junior prom. Isolate mother withdraws.

V. The Emblem of Righteousness

In Lu there lived Wang Tai whose foot was gone, amputated for crime. As you tell it,
Chuang Tze, Wang Tai had a great following, so Confucius must explain how such a
criminal could lead. The eye and ear are distinct, but Wang Tai views them in their
unity, all worldly things held as one-undivided. His understanding grasps his mind,
his mind grasps the constant mind, so body a truck-stop and death can never enter.
Poisons make their way across a continent. Senior year and selling shoes, the plague
appears grinning nearby. The upstairs down reappear. As I tumble, brother drawn in.
In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and
exalted. The train of his robe filled the temple. Attending him, six-winged seraphim.

Shenta Jia, foot-amputated criminal, was a disciple with Zichan, prime minister.
Zichan requested deference from Shenta Jia, even in discipleship. Jia replied, “in
discipleship, can there be prime ministers? You and I are here to wander deep
within the inner chambers, yet you judge me. By this, do you not also transgress?”
Chuang Tzu, you ask, is this nobility rinsing both clean, or awakening of oneself?
One potato, two potatoes – no need to recite the inventory-menu of intoxicants.
Swirling stars, steel-track death engine, poisoned, walking to ferret out zen koans.
Isaiah, a man of unholy lips, lived among a people of unholy lips. Purified by a
seraph-carried live-red burning coal, Isaiah faith-cried out – Here am I! Send me!

Amputee Shushan hobbled in to seek wisdom from Confucius, who scolded him.
“Isn’t it a bit late now, after you’ve been punished?” “I came for something more
important than a lecture,” Shushan replied and left. Lao Tzu, Tao master, advised
Shushan, “let Confucius see that death and life are a single thread. That would free
him.” “If he is punished, can I free him?” Shushan asked, as you do, Chuang Tzu.
High-school life crumpling at the edges; my brother following, mother falling too.
Romance cracked. Police-observed, arrested, not charged. Stopped reading books.
Be ever hearing, but never understanding. Be ever seeing, but never perceiving.
Make their hearts calloused. Otherwise they might see and hear, and be healed.

An average man named Aitai Tuo was ugly – grotesque. But men wanted to follow him
everywhere; women wished to cling to him. He didn’t speak well; had neither wealth
or position. Summoned to court, the ruler found him ordinary. Yet the Duke trusted
him with all power. Tuo’s virtue was whole, springing from within. Not death, not life,
nor any action of fate could perturb his inner harmony. To this you aspire, Chuang Tzu.
Accepted to San Francisco State, returned to California with a car to drop off in
LA. Gave a ride to hippies who invited me to a cabin near Eureka. Hitchhiked up.
A stone that causes men to stumble was coming, wrote Isaiah. In Galilee of the
Gentiles, a people walking in darkness will see a great light – that, without end.

Like a blind man wandering in a coal mine at midnight, Chuang Tzu, you seek some-
thing you cannot articulate. You write of lipless hunchbacks, a man with a jug-sized
neck tumor, to lose the sense of bodily form, to forget what cannot be forgotten. You
write of a sage who does nothing, knows nothing, trades nothing. Your sage is to
be nourished by heaven alone, with the form of a man, but none of the feelings??
Hippie-cabin crash-pad near a tributary to the Russian River. Summertime in the
Redwoods, majestic, unperturbable, with a motley crew and no duties to attend.
Unto us a child is born, Wonder Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince
of Peace. Can there be infant sages? Has our vision-prophet, Isaiah, lost his mind?

You wish to follow things naturally, Chuang Tzu, but you mean by Tao. You dislike
distinctions – yes, this, no, that – reason is not your friend. You think good and bad
are distortions, spontaneous Tao is the pure reflection. Reasoning, brooding, makes
an exile of your own mind and wears away your spirit. Arcane quibbles waste a man.
You seek in Tao a grounded free-estate, but you will find only a temporary leasehold.
Canadian hippie appeared, affluent, new VW bus, beautiful German shepherd for
company, generously asking us, “How many do you do?” with his purple-poison pills.
His appearance appalling, disfigured. A man of sorrows, despised, yet pierced for our
transgressions – the guilt of all, laid on him to bear. O, Isaiah, surely, you’ve gone mad.

VI. The Great and Original Master

Chuang Tzu, there is great spiritual longing in you. Even from this distance, I can feel
that longing, for something larger, deeper, than this mortal world. You speak of a sage,
a true man, who can attain realization. Not mere knowledge, but gifted understanding,
uniting opposites. The sage is wrong without apology, right without conceit. The mind
is free, towering, engaged, climbs or dives without fear, does not love life or hate death.
I’ll do two, thanks. Soon we were assembled by the banks of the creek, a handful of hippies
floating higher in warm California sunshine. Asked, so answered, Tom-from-Philadelphia.
The angel Gabriel came to a country girl with a message. Hail, greatly blessed! You will be
with child. Give him the name Jesus. Mary answered: Behold the handmaid of the Lord!

Forgetting can be spontaneous Tao. When streams dry out and fish are stranded, they
keep one another moist on the bank with their breath and spit. But when deep water
returns, they forget that to swim. We can praise one leader and hate another, but when
Tao leads and transforms, we forget both. If we call our life a blessing, then death must
be a blessing too. Tzu, life is more than a troubled burden, more than a chalky skull’s grin.
As we floated, the shepherd stood motionless on-guard at our circle, alert, disciplined, the
only one of us sober. My charged thoughts ran in pain-circles, pacing the bank’s edge.
Baptized by John, wilderness-tempted, Jesus synagogue-appeared.  Scroll-read ancient
words. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, to the prisoner.

Things – even if you cleverly hide your boat, it could be stolen. Suppose you were to hide 
the whole world? But there’s nothing to hide the whole world in – it is unchanging,
can never get away – vast and timeless nature persists. The sage says we’re cast into
this human form, upon which ten thousand changes will operate, but all transpires in the
vast and timeless nature, wu-wei still, Tao. Ingenious, Tzu, poignant-hopeful. Speculative.
Pacing, I lost track of where I was. The tributary, a few feet of clear-running stream-water,
appeared to me some great barrier which must be crossed. I was supposed to be happy.
What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? asked the evil spirit. I know who you are!
Come out of him! So ordered the Anointed, who shortly went to pray in a solitary place.

Tao has its own nature, self-sustaining. Still in itself, it has no form or image. One can
convey Tao, but never capture it to hold. You assert it to be self-creating, self-rooting,
before the beginning, though not ancient, giving rise to all else. Above all, yet not high,
under all, but not deep. Perhaps primal-chaos mastered it. Chuang Tzu, without any
revelation, you probe deeply – your mistakes give witness to the spiritual reality of God.
Internally cycling, I summoned, worked up, raw-addled emotions to plunge into the water.
Laced with desperate passions, I charged into Van-Gogh Styx-water splashing thigh-high.
Nicodemus came at night. I tell you the truth, Jesus replied to a question never asked,
unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. Now came a question.

Nanbo asked the hunchback, “how is it, old woman, your complexion is like a child’s?”
“I heard the Tao,” she said. “Well, teach me,” replied Nanbo. “Not you,” she replied.
“Yi had the sage-qualities, but not the Tao. I have Tao, but not the qualities. In three
days with me, he gave up worldly things. In seven, he lost the world itself. In nine, life.
Yi, beyond death or life, saw no-time-ruin-unity with clarity.” As would you, Chuang Tzu?
The stream was three feet deep, twenty yards wide. If flooding-emotions had not been
so real, this acid-cursed suicide plunge would only be comical. Arrived on the far bank.
How can a man be born when old? No one enters, Jesus answered, except Spirit-born.
As Moses lifted up the desert-serpent, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, for all.

The hunchback woman had more for Nanbo. “What kills the living never dies; what
births the living, never born. There is nothing not sent off; nothing not welcomed.
Nothing it does not destroy; nothing it does not complete. Its name is Strife-Peace.”
“Where did you learn this?” asked Nanbo. She answered with a string of mocking-
mystery-names. Tzu, you grapple deep, but cannot see the Word, Logos, who comes.
I was a young man, dead. I looked up to the sky, separated from heaven. Swirling
clouds above me, unreachable – ethereal, aloof. Ghost-alone, haunting a sandy bank.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness instead.
So John: I must become less. The Father loves the Son, placing each, all in his hands.

Four friends, masters Si, Yu, Li and Lai, were united on these thoughts. Nothing is
your head. Life is your spine. Death is your ass. All are united in one single body.
Master Yu fell sick, so Si inquired as to his health. “The Change-maker is making me
hooked, humped, bulging, a crooked, misshapen freak,” answered Yu. “Do you
mind?” asked Si. “Why no!” said Yu. “Perhaps he’ll turn my ass into cartwheels.”
What does any ghost do, but contemplate spiritual half-truths, previously hidden?
Fading away, thinking everything was laid bare. Wet, half-right, trip-delusional, sad.
At a well, Jesus asked a been-around woman for a drink. Can you ask me? she replied.
I’m a Samaritan. Rather, ask me, Jesus answered, for the drink I give of living water.

Yu went on. “The time came for my life. The time comes to end it. No sorrow or
joy within me – my ropes are untied. Some can’t get free, but heaven wins anyway.”
Then Lai got sick, dying. His wife and children circled around, wailing. “Don’t freak
up the process!” Li shooed them away. Li turned to Lai, “Think you’ll be turned into
a rat’s liver next?” Lai answered, “If that’s my destined-change, why should I mind?”
What followed was a return to San Francisco, a rented room on Castro Street years
ahead of its changes, long meandering city-walks, isolate, aimless, anxious, lonely.
Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father – not on this
or that mountain, not even in Jerusalem. God is Spirit – we’ll worship in True Spirit.

Three friends gathered to ask “Who can join what cannot be joined? Who can climb
to heaven? Ride the mists beyond the cosmos? Forget life and live with no end?”
When one friend died, the others sang, “You’ve returned to form.” Chuang Tzu,
you stage-manage Confucius to ask: “What kind of men are these? They roam among
the single-whole energy of heaven and earth.” Tzu, are you whistling in the dark?
But San Francisco State changed things: classes, draft deferred, a whole new stack of
books to read. SF State girl, long sable hair – she would break my heart, but not yet.
Truly, the Son does nothing by himself, but only what he sees the Father doing. Whoever
hears my word and believes has crossed over from death to life. O, thou-deaf, hear!

When Mengsun Cai’s mother died he wailed but shed no tears. He was not grieved.
Confucius appeared to explain. “His body may be threatened, but his mind is calm.
His household may be distraught, but transformations carry on. He wails to join the
grief, but without ego. Perhaps you dream you’re a bird or a fish. Are you, a man,
the wakened one – or their dream?” Sage, mortal-man, be cautious of easy wordplay.
Lots of books and a girlfriend; if life held more, I didn’t need it. Pleasant times passed
peacefully in a city sparkling with diversions. But there was writing on a wall for me.
Have the people sit down, Jesus instructed. With five barley loaves and two small fish,
the Savior revealed himself – come into our world, the Great and Original Master.

Yi went to visit Xu, seeking to follow him. “What teaching did you have from Yao,
your former teacher?” “Submit yourself to do others good, and duty. Speak plainly
right and wrong,” replied Yi. “Then why are you here?” asked Xu. “You already
wear the shackles of doctrine. How will you run free?” “At the edges?” asked Yi.
“If one can lose beauty or wisdom, can’t myriad transformations restore them?”
Japanese horror movies are hip-freaky when tripping, but the experience sent low
waves of distress into ex-Catholic SF girl. Other romantic interests caught her eye.
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in
you. T’was a hard teaching for Jesus’ friends and foes. The Spirit gives life, he said.

Chuang Tzu, you present a teacher, impersonal force, hidden, sifting myriad
transformations, but without cruelty. Bounty extends untold ages, but without
goodwill. Elder to the most ancient, but not aging, sculpts all, without skill.
Insightful yet puzzled, observing mysteries through opaque lenses, Tzu, you
would roam here, free, but have no Law, no Word. You haunt a sandy bank.
No pain in falling from a height until you hit ground. It took some time to realize
I was shattered. Ruby waves of distress were mine now, rented days or nights.
We don’t know where you’re going, Thomas asked. How can we know the way?
I am the Way, Jesus replied. Don’t you know me? See – your grief will turn to joy.

Masters Yu and Sang were friends. Hard rain poured ten days non-stop; Yu grew
concerned and brought food to Sang. Yu found Sang wailing, chanting, singing out
with stringed instrument: “Father! Mother! Heaven! Man!” “Why do you sing so?”
Yu asked. “How could I be brought so low?” cried Sang. “Who wanted me to be so
poor? Who made it so?” Tzu, these, your questions, were told as a Lazarus-parable.
Time and geography assist even the shattered. Poet-cousin allowed me to summer-
stay with her in Cambridge. Midget-dishes, hot-tar roofs, new faces, youth a cure.
Shall I crucify your king? With a shrug, Pilate sent him on with soldiers with a post-
sign: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. He said, I am thirsty. Then, it is finished.

VII. Heavenly Powers, Great Kings

First resurrection-command, given to the Magdalen, seeking a body. Go tell my
brothers – I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.
Nie Que had four questions for Wang Ni, but received no answer. Hopping with
glee, Nie Quie told his master. “Of course! There are no answers. Emperor Shun
was worldly-wise and humane. Emperor Tai thought himself a horse one day, an
ox the next. He was wide-eyed, thought-empty, never worldly, never spiritual.”
Tzu, you spin a silky no-web, walk an ethereal no-path, but only to not-hate death?
Back from Cambridge, found an SF State student commune. Shared meals, dog-walks
in Glen Park, started writing, new books, new people, the unraveling threads quieted.

Jian Wu found the madman Jie Yu, who asked, “What did High-Noon tell you?” Jian
replied, “Whoever rules should make rules.” Madman Jie answered, “Total bullshit.
Get real. You can’t send a river through an ocean or have mosquitoes carry mountains.
When sages rule, they disregard public spin-shows and attend to their own character.
Then things work – even mice and birds know that.” Indeed, Tzu, who can argue?
In time a Genet-maid, a shorter player, gathered my threads to weave with hers, so
all could unravel. We waved goodbye – heading where Sally went round the roses.
Tongues of fire in many languages. Peter preached in these last days, God says, my
Spirit will outpour-all. Children, servants will prophesy – the old will dream dreams.

Tian strolled Mt. Yin to the riverbanks of Liao, meeting Nameless. “How should
I rule the world”” Tian asked. “O, fool!” replied Nameless. “Silly question! I join
the Transformer, to mount the disappeared confusion-bird beyond dimension, to
wander on desolation row and dwell beyond oblivion. Why must you bother me?
Let your mind wander in simplicity. That’ll work.” Well, Tzu, maybe – maybe not.
Despondent, crushed, when shorter player left me for a glamor-director, wandered
the city, talking to myself. Some kindness appeared, but the cup was emptying.
Persecutor turned apostle, beacon to the Gentiles, ready to impart a gift revealed,
righteousness from God, by faith from first to last, the saving power of God for all.

Yang Tzu went to question Lao Dan. “Suppose there was a man, alert, vital, wise,
studied in Tao. Would he be as an enlightened king?” “That’s only a pencil-pusher,
tired, confused. Creatures are hunted for fur or put on leashes. That’s not a king.”
Stunned, Yang asked, “How, then?” “The king does good unseen, gives unknown,
freely wanders immeasurable, empty realms.” O, Chuang, what does empty solve?
Cabined in Noe Valley, all else failed, found typewriter keys and a coffee house.
Last-ditch dignity was there, cage-wrestling my emotions like great, literary apes.
We see Jesus, made lower than angels, crowned with glory and honor, because of
his suffering and death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for all.

In Cheng there was shaman named Ji Xian, who could tell whether men would live
or die, be lucky or unlucky – he knew a man’s last day. People ran when they saw
him. Lieh-tzu saw him and was amazed. Lieh told his master Huzi, “I thought your
Tao was highest, but his is greater still.” Huzi said, “Think you know Tao? You’re
parading on the street with swagger in your eyes. Find this man – let him see me.”
Cinema-school friend asked to make her 16mm film-noir in my gangster’s hideout.
Stark lighting, clipped lines, breath all-night mood. Dawn saw sunrise-lit gullwings.
The day of the Lord will yet come as a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar.
The elements, fire-destroyed, everything laid bare for a new heaven, a new earth.

Shaman Ji met Huzi, who told Lieh, “Your master is a dead man.” Weeping, Lieh
told Huzi, who replied, “I showed him earth’s face. But he only saw my virtue-
blocked. Bring him back.” Lieh brought the shaman back. “Your master’s better
now,” announced Ji. Huzi told Lieh, “I showed him heaven, before first hint of
names or matter. He saw my virtue-whole. Bring him back.” Lieh brought Ji back.
Dickens, Faulkner, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Milton, tramped through my
anchorless life. No confusion-weed could entirely hide the world they painted.
So John testified. That which was from the beginning, which we heard, we saw,
which we touched, we proclaim to you, the Word of Life, now is our joy-appeared.

Returned to see Huzi, Ji told Lieh, “Your master is beyond any reading – inscrutable.”
So Huzi told Lieh, “I showed him the great emptiness before reality emerged. All
he saw was the source of my virtue. Where the whale turns is deep-abyss; where
the water is still, an abyss. Where the water flows, another abyss. Tell him to come
again.” The next day Ji came to visit Huzi, but at once the shaman fled in frantic terror.
More productive introspection began. If I weren’t happy, if my life wasn’t a success,
why was that? Not the most precise questions – but asking questions at all a start.
A revelation-message for servants, angel-carried. Sent to seven churches, standing
for all, by the One who is. And Who was. And is to Come. And the seven-fold Spirit.

Huzi explained to Lieh, “I showed him the formless void before the first man emerged.
I took him into the emptiness. He twisted and turned and no longer knew his own
name. He saw effortless-change, wavering reeds, tumbling waves. A shaman thought
he was fading away. That’s why he ran.” After this, Lieh concluded he knew nothing
at all. He cooked for his wife, fed his animals well, and never left his front door again.
New words came knocking at my door – Thomas a Kempis, John Bunyan, addressing
life-problems differently than West-Coast self-indulgent, macrobiotic trend-floating.
Mysteries indeed: open door, elders, crystal-glass sea, a scroll sealed with seven seals.
Living creatures surrounding a throne, crying, holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty.

Chuang Tzu, your stand-in Huzi has led us into abyss-deep waters. If we sought to
explore spiritual terraces, you have been our guide. There is indeed the earth, itself
a terrace, more than a name and more than a collection of particles. There is indeed
a heaven, before the formless void, from which the wellsprings draw, another terrace.
There is a great emptiness and abyss-place – beyond that, another mystery-terrace still.
Wrestled with spirits I knew not. Dreamed in shadows, walked a city’s hills. Questions
etched on my face. Ordered a night-cup of coffee – a teasing waitress asked, “Why?”
Four horses and four riders, one quite pale. Multitudes sealed, four angels to wait at
four corners. A seventh seal, and Wormwood. A sun-clothed woman and a dragon.

Let us attend your last mystery, Chuang Tzu, told your way, here on these terraces.
Swift, god of the Southern Sea met with Sudden, god of the Northern sea. The god
of the center was Wonton. Swift and Sudden met in Wonton, who would host them
kindly. Swift and Sudden discussed returning these favors: “Men have seven holes,
to look, listen, eat and breathe. Not Wonton. Let’s bore some holes into Wonton.”
Admitted California was a loss. Going to leave, sirens held me still. Doubtful, read
distant want-ads in libraries. Daunted, but bolt-escape carries its own driven passion.
I saw the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God, who will wipe every tear
from our eyes. Now, no more death or mourning; this old order has passed away.
The angel carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high. The four-gated
City shone-brilliant with glory. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

Every day Sudden and Swift bore one hole into Wonton. On the seventh day,
Wonton died. Chuang Tzu, even in the ethereal-terraced cosmos of your planes
of spiritual movement and being, you end this sojourn into your inner chambers
with a death. Who can dispute your intelligence, your curiosity – who can disparage
your skills? Chuang Tzu, your movements are precise, but I have a better answer.
The angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from
the throne of God and of the Lamb. On each side of the river stood the tree of life.
The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any
curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be there. They do reign and will reign


Even so, yet the foundation of understanding is dug with the shovel of grief.
Threads tear, bright eyes go dark, until this world’s Light is honored and glorified.
Eternal heart-praise for the Lamb, our everlasting rock, staff and manna.
Throne-Centered, endowed with life, dissolving sorrow, sparkling vivid grace.
Speculation is not salvation; Master, transform me out of death. Send a ticket.
Preserve my thoughts from folly, O Lord. Your revelation is my only cell-window.
Separate me from being merely clever, and doomed. I will praise you forever.


Afterword. We don’t know much about Chuang Tzu. He probably lived from about 365 to 290 B.C. This period, marked also by intense conflict, was a golden age for Chinese philosophy (the “Hundred Schools of Thought”). The various schools were engaged in a constate debate and Chuang Tzu was a part of this ongoing debate. Most of these philosophers were concerned with social philosophy, conduct and duty-oriented, of which the philosophy or sayings of Confucius are the best known. The Taoism or ‘Way’ which Chuang Tzu presented was quite different than the social-order, social-betterment emphasis of the other schools of philosophy.

Chuang Tzu is one of the original founders of Tao, the Way, which has exerted lasting influence over the spiritual lives of the Chinese. Taoism blended well with early Buddhism; both tend to reject outward appearances (or reality, depending on your viewpoint) for an inner, more detached reality. Taken together (see the later work of Chinese poets like Hsieh Ling-yun, Tu Fu or Li Po), the two religious disciplines became a single dominant strand in Chinese intellectual thought.

I consulted the following sources for writing this poetic response to Chuang Tzu, in which I loosely transliterated and compressed various translations of his parable-writing (which is dense and at times ambiguous) to get at what seemed to me to be the core of his thoughts. This post is intended to be a kind of dialogue, with some of the bluntness and messiness of a coffee house discussion, not a translation (which I could not do) or a compilation of several translators’ works.

Chuang Tzu, The Inner Chapters, David Hinton, Counterpoint, 2014. Hinton is an exquisite translator and it is due to his work that I have become acquainted with and enchanted by the entire field of Chinese spiritual poetry.

Zhuangzi: The Inner Chapters, trans. by Robert Eno, which is an open access translation, made available on the internet at http:/hdl.handle.net/2022/23427. Eno prepared this translation for use by his students in a general course on early Chinese thought. It is an outstanding translation, upon which I heavily relied, along with Hinton’s translation. No one’s asking me, but I think Professor Eno ought to more formally publish his translation – I, at least, would purchase a copy. Generally, in order to finalize my sense of what Chuang Tzu was communicating, I blended Hinton’s work and Eno’s in roughly equal measures; then I pared that down to five lines of poetry for each entry.

Chuang-Tzu, The Inner Chapters, A.C. Graham, Hackett Publishing, 2001. This has an especially good introduction and carries a great deal of supplementary information.

The Complete Works of Zhuangzi, Burton Watson, Columbian University Press, 2013. This has some extensive and useful notes in the margins.

Most of passages from the Bible were taken, with some editing and compression, from the New International Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1978.

If you have read this far, hopefully you have gotten some benefit from this internet blog-post, which was truly pleasurable for me to produce.



P.S.  The following isn’t suitable for prime-time, so I’ve hidden it here like dirty laundry stuffed into a closet.

My Indelicate Letter-Poem for Charles Bukowski

Dear Charles,

“Don’t try,” you counseled, and chiseled it on your tomb.
Drink up – you dumb, drunken fuck.

In its own way, yours is pretty good advice. So I add mine –
it takes one to know one – pass the Ripple.
You lived a life I was scheduled to live.
Rented rooms, jagged concrete, sweat that oozes
out of pores, sour sickly-sweet smell – our pillow talk.

Then I was spirited away.  Called elsewhere, now I try –
and my life is diametrically opposite to yours.
The Son of God did not despise my intoxication,
with acid dripping out my ears & running like snot from my nose.
The Son of Man did not find me contemptible.

Charles, you can never be quite drunk enough or mad enough –
Just when you pissed your pants all over again,
there He is. And if the piss dripping down your leg
is a little disgusting, what will we make of
the blood pouring from His side?

But I remember, Charles, remember well,
when young days were hallucinogenically bright,
the way yours were drowned whiskey-river wet.
What is it about stone dreams that seems to make it better?
The human condition runs deep.

When you remove the mystery of the Holy,
there’s not much left, is there?
Stale lives propped against dead swans,
Sad music from broken windows, the hatred and
discard of passing, diesel-fuming trucks.

Drag it out, Lord! Drag the world out of its filth.
Pull us by our drunken hair. Brush away the vicious ants
crawling on our broken arms. Your words, Charles, are
their own kind of stained glass. Shit-smeared sheets at a
cheap flop-house where the Savior’s blood transfigures our
snarling, jism-covered, vermin-laced beds.

Wayward Child

Dear Charles,

I see you in complex ways. A bloated, shrilly-determined housefly buzzing fiercely against
a windowpane, relentless, unable to escape or fly forward, not understanding at all the
barrier impeding you.  Your energy for poetry was beating on manic wings until your final
diary-articulate, perceptive-right-to-the-gallows crash. Morning-Death kleenix-swept you
up from the sill, deposited you folded neatly into the trash, astonishing and revolting.

You were a pet-store tropical fish in the LA city aquarium, bottom-feeding, content enough.
Not bumping against the glass walls, secured in filtered, gravel-bottomed American destiny.
As long as a daily dose of poetry, of alcohol, of sex, of horse racing, of Bizet and Mahler
dropped into your water, you had no complaint.  Your pleco-poet’s world had space enough,
even if some memories stung, even if the green descending net occasionally puzzled you.

Death hovers in the air, seeps under the cracks in doors.  You described gory bullfights
in Mexico so diligently, ever the conscientious artist. If Hemingway thought they were
romantic – he was in love with death – you were not so in love. You don’t cream over
the sadistic glee.  You saw yourself in a tortured, dying animal, pierced, collapsing in pain
onto its knees to the cheers of the crowd.  What else?  Find words, pour another drink.

Outside the resurrection of Christ there really is no answer to any of that, even what you so
artfully describe. You don’t want to hear my tiresome sermon. Religion in any form is
vicious, superstructure for a detested, impenetrably obscure/angry/cold world. Men are
the houseflies, the spotted hobby-fish, majestic bulls bred as victims for sport, crashing into
walls or accepting them placidly or sometimes bellowing in collected books of mutual pain.

Purple haze.  One young night you were drunk and there was a purple Christ in a glass box
outside a little church.  You don’t say, but the purple Christ was probably life-sized.  You
smashed the glass, broke through to touch Christ.  That Christ was only a dummy.  Sirens.
You ran. I saw Christ on a book cover in Madrid late one night – didn’t break the glass.
Christ broke through.  In our souls so surely linked there is pain, poetry and something more.

The intellectual problem is fundamental. Charles, we start in media res, in the middle of
things.  We were never broad-shouldered dudes, arrogant in our youth, strolling into a
singles bar, checking out the mini-skirted attractions and deciding who we’re going to flirt
with.  The girls have quick eyes and inviting smiles, but it all disappears in a wind-driven
fog. We clutch, fingers and knuckles bleeding, yet the vision melts, vanishes empty away.  

You thought that’s how the throbbing scene began or at least the current theory for the scene,
but not so. We’re a wayward wife in the marriage counselor’s office, attempting to explain to
the counselor and long-suffering husband why we drink all night.   There isn’t much to say. 
We’re married with a history, there were vows.  Our soul-kitchen did not drop in from outer
space.  ‘Ok, ok,’ – I hear.  ‘Can I start drinking now?’  Sure, but watch for glass and matadors.

So as one soul-creature to another – crystal-shipped, a ghost on the astral plane (I suppose)
waiting for judgment – I send flowered, artsy salutations.  We are two characters in some
off-world play.  I hail you across an unbridgeable divide.  You could be my father, but one
might say I became wayward too.  The sad-eyed docket says that the fly, the fish, the bull, you – –
all dead.  Whatever decisions there are, Jesus, who passes through walls, will make them.

Two Borstal Boys Are We

Dear Brendan,

1939.  They arrested you in Liverpool with a Sinn Fein conjurer’s outfit in hand –
potassium chloride, sulphuric acid, gelignite, detonators, ignition –
16 years old, Irish Republican Army, planning to blow up some docks.
Your landlady screeched out, “Oh God, Boy, there’s two gentlemen to see you!”

1967. Four cops arrested me, 16, in San Francisco, carrying goods, smalltime street dealer –
on acid, marijuana in a $5 matchbook, easy to discover, $10 slender package of meth –
hidden in my imitation-suede jacket pocket which their prying fingers did not locate
before hustling me into the paddy wagon in San Francisco with others also waylaid.

The docks intended for your sabotage once moved baled Dixie cotton for the Confederacy,
would be bombed by the Luftwaffe. But your interest in 1939 was Irish Independence.
Forged travel permit, an Irish letter. If the bobbie challenged you about IRA casualties
you were ready to answer him with Bloody Sunday and the whole history of Irish pathos.

I explained to the arresting officers I had a letter from my father, allowing me to be
in San Francisco. As they pulled out my pot matchbook, one brusquely asked if my letter
authorized that. The paddy wagon they threw me into trawled with the cops down Haight,
half-full already with street pickings.  Taken to a police station in Golden Gate off Stanyan.

They brought you to C.I.D. headquarters for questioning. You had ready a brave statement:
My name is Brendan Behan. I came over here to fight for Irish Workers and Small Farmers’
Republic, for the removal of British Imperialism from Irish affairs. God save Ireland.”
You threw in a bit of the old left-wing element, were ready to die on the scaffold or in battle.

You were considerably more mature and purposeful than I was. We were taken out of the
paddy wagon for our mugshots. One runaway was slapped around a bit because he wouldn’t
give his name but his resistance didn’t last. I had no deep purpose to resist.  After two hours
we juveniles were returned into the same paddy wagon, to be ferried up to juvenile hall.

You were shifted around to a couple of lock-ups, but you knew the lay of the land even in a
strange, hostile place. You confronted the hatred born of the Trouble.  You knew your
persecutors – their social history, their accents.  Every prisoner, every guard had a pocket
biography showing from their dialect, like a snapshot of their home turf – plain to you.

In the wagon to juvy, I found the dime bag of speed that I had discarded into a scrap
of floor-trash.  One of my fellow miscreants snorted it in the wagon.  San Francisco, that
city of Ferlinghetti and City Lights bookstore, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, Burroughs and
Naked Lunch, hippies, beatniks, love-ins and topless dancers. Getting high excited no one.

You already had tutoring from your father and uncles about dealing with soldiers, police,
prison screws. The Irish knew conflict with British authority, handed the knowledge down
from one generation to another, each son handed Ireland’s cross. Expecting to be beaten by
guards, you murmured Lord Jesus, receive my soul.  The guards brought sliced bread, cocoa.

There was a political fight in America too, over the Vietnam war. Some fathers were handing
America’s cross to their sons, to fly in Huey’s, Skyhawks, like John McCain – shot down and
housed at the Hanoi Hilton.  But many fathers, like mine, had little interest in having their
sons shipped to Asia. There was no hand-waving sendoff from Dover, no welcome in Saigon.

Locked up, you remembered Dublin, its tough northside – your sad, beautiful city. You
wondered – about Mass because you wanted to hear an Irish voice. C.I.D. men questioned
you.  You of Tuatha De Dannan, schooled to resist, sired of blooded patriots. Whatever
your fancy of freedom huddled on a cot, your answer to them was I can’t help you, sir.”

I was brought up in the usual patriotism.  My father was a veteran, a dental officer in WWII
and rejoining, stationed in Germany during the Korean War. I was half-Jewish.  Household
book was William Shirer’s History of the Third Reich – concentration camps, gas chambers.
Father had little Jewish passion – escaped that world without a backward glance or a song.

Brendan, your acquisition of history left you with marching orders.
My acquisition of history left me with questions.  Even so, we were both teenagers.
I’ll forgive you for wanting to blow things up in Liverpool for Irish glory and independence.
Forgive me for wanting to sell meth on the streets of San Francisco for ten dollars.

2.  Soldier for a cause.
Your father was arrested during the Irish Civil War. Your mother brought you, six weeks
old, to hold you up on the road outside for him to see you from the cell window.  Sinn Fein
for you.  IRA training on firearms, explosives in a castle at Killiney. Your emotional departure
slow, exiting a silo of narrow emotions, only in part.  Glorious cause – was it ever replaced?

My father was confined by something less easily defined. By being a Jewish kid in
Roxborough, in Philadelphia – by having his father desert the family, by working in a candy
store, hemmed in by economic necessity, older siblings and a struggling mother, being
directed to be a dentist, it was a good profession. More than one kind of incarceration.

Detonating-lance-armed crusader, you hoped the British and Germans would at least maim
each other for a millennium.  In WWI Roger Casement gave secret Irish aid to the Germans.
Got himself hung.  Evil of the British Empire, intense – it would burn a black man alive, put
a pregnant woman by the side of the road –  two-horned like a lamb, spoke as the dragon.

The man I called Grandfather Littman was my grandmother Sarah’s second husband. He had
escaped from Germany, bitter disputes with his wife, who didn’t want to leave Homburg and
their shoe business. She and their daughters stayed and died in the camps. Littman was grey,
kind, quiet, kept a short-wave radio for news, feared Goldwater and always had a bag packed. 

While being processed you got cell cards: yours was red for Roman Catholic; white for
Church of England; yellow for Nonconformist – for display outside cells.  Religion mattered.
The guards saw who was to be ordered to which religious services. Being R.C. was an
identity, a family heritage, a continent of belief, a system of knowledge – never a question.

Up in San Francisco’s juvenile hall, up around Twin Peaks, I could see a telephone tower at
the top of a steep peak through a small, high cell window. No one cared about our religious
affiliation.  We were given blue jeans and white t- shirts in the common lunch area.  White
kids gathered in one area, the Hispanic kids gathered, black kids gathered – self-sorting.

You were called, R.C., for Sunday morning service. You needed no prayer book to follow a
Mass the same the world over.  A religious child, but I.R.A. loyalty and the Church bumped
heads. You father had been excommunicated with thousands in 1922, like De Valera. Even
with Irish politics, you never gave up your faith.  Asking, like Peter –  Indeed?  For what?

Juvy, logical end of the Street. One new arrival, a black kid changing into his blue jeans and
white t-shirt, was dark-skinned with conked hair and an expression of raw defiance. On his
back he had a large square white cotton bandage for a newly-dressed knife wound. I figured
him from Hunter’s Point, a tough outskirt ghetto which scared even the Fillmore district kids.

You felt communion with millions of Catholics at the sacrifice of the Mass. Stripped of your
bomb-making ingredients, you were ready to give Jesus less reason for his Tears and
wander back, more often than not, into a state of grace. Prison repentances are a dime a
dozen, but your contrition was something more than the convenience of the hour.

I would not have known contrition from a convulsion.  I had some spiritual impulses.  On
Sundays I dropped acid, wandered into Golden Gate Park into the Whitney De Young
museum, to hang with the buddhas and Asian religious statuary in the Asian wing. I could
have smoked dope, sold Berkeley Barbs, or hung around Foghorn Fish & Chips for handouts.

You were brought in to be excommunicated by the English R.C. priest.  You retaliated
with a blazing lecture in Irish Catholic history, finishing with your own father being
excommunicated in Kilmainham Prison in 1922. This earned you a beating from guards
indignant you would insult a priest.  That didn’t diminish your faith – it rested elsewhere.

You found books and so did I.  In juvenile hall, there were some classes to attend, some books
scattered about. I read Scaramouche, a historical novel by Sabatini. Before my arrest I went
to Polytechnic near Golden Gate Park, my arrangement with my father to stay in the Haight.
We read Mark Twain in English class, studied moles in Chemistry.  I smelled like stale pot.

Brendan, you record various fights with tormenters  – when one started to ride you,
you led with your right and came up with a left, holding a metal thimble you jammed into
your tormenter’s face. You rammed & scarred him, leaving your antagonist blinded with
blood, moaning when the guard stopped it.  It was good for the respect of your cellmates.

3.  Hey you – get on up. 
Drug dealing has its own hazards. Selling ounces of pot for $10 on the street, a black kid
about my size from the Fillmore wanted to buy a lid.  I stepped down a side street, pulled it
out. He flashed a flat-bladed, curved knife, ran right at me, grabbed it and swung the knife,
turning the knife blade flat, not to cut, just scare – a hole in jacket, but none in my shoulder.

Brought up for discipline, you mentally pictured the prison Governor like some governor of
a distant outpost on the Empire, administering the King’s justice among lesser breeds, to the
wild Irish, the turbulent Pathan, the wily Arab, the smooth Confucian. The British Empire, its
Bengal Lancers, hated – in its power, its demonic coat of arms, its shocking global success.

If I dropped acid twice a week, then five days I didn’t.  San Francisco – Whitman’s raucous
America – I, of small-town Pennsylvania. I rambled, soaked up a perched city like a sponge,
with quick, keen eyes, no judgments – the Mission, Tenderloin, financial district, the Haight,
North Beach, wharves, hills, Market, Chinatown, Broadway  – adolescent cat on the prowl.

You cursed the British Empire, not the Catholic faith.  Joyce recited priests’ sermons to
belittle them. At Christmas Mass, you remembered a tender sermon, forgiving love coming
from this child who came for salvation. If Liverpool bombmaking was misguided, it was self-
sacrifice too.  Any child who engages in self-sacrifice is more than a statue affixed to a church.

In the Summer of Love, in the fall of my arrest and return to Lansdale, there were no
Christmas homilies.  My world was startling, chaotic, intriguing – its sadness waited in the
wings.  You could trip away, wash dishes, get laid, even fall in love, get arrested. There were
flower children, revolutionaries, users, cops, nude dancers, booksellers – but no redeemers.

You had mates in the nick, china plates. Charlie and you were chinas and if your china had a
problem you had his back. The flip side was you were an IRA man and you knew – being
part of one IRA bombing was to conspire in them all. A bomb went off in Birmingham,
England – the IRA Sabotage Plan. Two men would be hung.  Please stuff the justice lecture.

We had a bomb go off in Birmingham too – in Birmingham, Alabama.  In 1963, a KKK bomb
killed four little black girls in the basement of a church. There were later IRA bombings –
a pub in Birmingham targeted in 1974, killed 21.  Will any city named Birmingham do?  15,
I marched in NY against the Vietnam War – but politics never seemed much of an answer.

Fianna boy, bold Fenian man, you had quite a speech ready for your courtroom defense –
about the unyielding determination of the Irish people, so on and so forth. Like wow, man,
as we said on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury. Heavy.  O, onward, brave Erin.  On their
hanging you made the sign of the cross.  Noble or misguided, death nibbles away at causes.

In juvenile hall relations were peaceful. The black kids sang harmony with a radio from
their cells at night – Cool Jerk and Hey You, Get on Up! A Hispanic kid explained to me the
penal philosophy of California incarceration. Blacks one place, whites another, La Raza
another. If you value your life, don’t cross the lines.  I didn’t mind – it was new, interesting.

You gave your courtroom speech. The judge regretted your tender years prevented him from
imposing a fourteen year sentence on you – instead, three years in Borstal. The judge
commented on your maturity.  He didn’t mean it as a compliment. You saw their symbols –
lions, unicorns, ermine robes as disguise to hide their hypocrisy-hangman’s hood – & rage.

My conversation with the Hispanic kid continued. We were in ‘B’ wing for repeat offenders
because the wing for newbies was filled. I informed him my father was sending plane fare to
fly back to Pennsylvania soon. You’ll be back, the Hispanic kid said. Although technically he
was wrong – in terms of his general, prophetic pronouncement about me, he was dead on.

Brendan, I have been unfair in citing you for wanting to blow people up – you only wanted to
blow up a British shipyard – a distinction without a difference. Rather like me announcing
that I had no real love for meth because LSD was my drug. My mother was an alcoholic and
her mother before her. So I guess we all have an explanatory family history. Erin go bragh.

4. Betrayed in the Garden.
Ironic to note that you died at the age of 41 of alcoholism. I will spare you a sermon or
any junior-varsity psychology. Sentenced to Borstal, leaving Liverpool – its docks, crooks,
bookmakers, boxers, landlords, pubs, greyhound tracks and beer. Someday it would be the
home of four bug-named musicians.  Blackbird, it’s good you didn’t blow everything up.

Soon after arriving in San Francisco, I had a conversation out in the Mission district at the
flat of four socialist-idealists who provided gratis housing for runaways and strangers. He
was from New Jersey, a brother for looks. He narrated a story about car chases, someone
getting shot, killed while he was in a car, but an aimless conclusion, no legal consequence.

You went to London, Feltham Boys’ Prison, for allocation to an assigned Borstal. You fought
at Feltham – poor choice since he was a professional boxer – got demolished.  Fighting-
Irish, ham & eggs.  Always waiting for your last IRA prison stand, you went for him to build
a tough reputation. Then you’d be left alone.  Fearful, you attacked.  The way of the world.

After my NJ twin finished his car chase story, he talked about getting high in California &
getting high in NJ – it was better in NJ for mysterious reasons.  Switched topics, to sprinkled
derelict winos flopped across curbs at 8th & Mission.  Said that’s where I expect to end up.
Dry-eyed teen-fatalist in a romper room of stoned – pot/psychedelic San Francisco.

In Feltham, there are Easter services – for an R.C., stations of the Cross. You described the
priest’s sermon – the arrest of Jesus like an I.R.A. man: shopped, ratted out by Judas in the
Garden, to be cruelly scourged – British power and Roman identical, agents of one evil
oppressive empire. Jesus the rebel, taken – a Fenian man on British information received.

In 1967, betrayal too. I sang America the Beautiful in Quaker kindergarten, memorized the
Gettysburg Address in fifth grade. But then Vietnam was a betrayal.  Assassinations of John
Kennedy, of ML King, of Malcolm X – betrayals.  My parents’ divorce a betrayal. Whatever
America promised got ratted out in our own Garden.  But by who, or why, no one agreed.

You hoped to be sent to Hollesley Bay, with your two chinas. An open Borstal – not locked in,
work to do.  Waiting, an I.R.A. soldier, infiltrated & serving at the altar, calls you aside, knows
you and your Republican unit.  He provides cigarettes and smuggled chocolate – which you
distribute in barracks to your mates, to friend & foe alike, handing out your loaves and fish.

In the Haight, the Diggers gave out free food in Panhandle Park, but the food was tasteless.
Standing by Foghorn Fish & Chips, hippies sharing their breaded, vinegary cod was better.
Lacking friends or foes, self-tossed, adrift.  My adversaries were diffuse – cops, systems, a
war, society.  Juvy changed little – hidden within, an encrypted riddle I couldn’t yet touch. 

Quis est homo, qui non fleret, Matrem Christi si videret, in tanto supplicio? Brendan, you
wept with Christ’s mother, shared her inner grief. No excommunication, no politics, no Irish
rebellion, no Borstal kept you from faith that really was yours. Christ gave himself for a larger
duty. Self-sacrifice, even misguided, you understood from the marrow of your bones.

At the Germantown campus of the prep school my parents sent me to, age 12, we convened
each morning in chapel.  History teacher spoke on the feeding of the five thousand, noted it
was recorded in all four gospels. My American civic religion – salted with its Jewish, Quaker, 
flavoring – flamed napalm-up when Grace Slick sang White Rabbit.  Slick, chemical grace.

Your china, Charlie, a sailor, joined you at Hollesley Bay. Later he would be released for ship
board duty. Early in 1941, the Southampton came under attack from Stukas.  Hit near Malta,
she caught fire – eighty British sailors trapped below. Depressing – couldn’t the Luftwaffe
bomb Britain’s ships, but not your Borstal mate? Charlie’s death didn’t fit into any model.

June 1967, when I left for San Francisco, Israel was concluding the Six-Day War. In October,
U.S. Marines fought at Quang Tri. Fifty thousand marched on the Pentagon. General Hersey
asked draft boards to draft anti-war protestors. John McCain was shot down and captured.
A butterfly on my nectar, floating haphazardly, adolescently selfish, yet, also, ready to love.

Brendan, to Borstal with a song on the bus for everyone – Ballykinlar March for Ireland,
County Down for mothers, Tipperary for even the British, Roll out the Barrel, The Woody
Woodpecker Song. At Hollesley, you started digging.  New work, you were apprenticed in
building trades, like your fathers before.  Every boy was working class, blue-collar, no toff.

Class structure for me, abandoned hitchhiking for San Francisco, enrolled at Poly High.  War,
drugs, music – for a decade, who cared?  My cobbled family history internalized. Yet cat-
walking an American city, senses ablaze, puzzle pieces dropped jumbled to a mewling soul –
Why am I alive? Why do we live at all? Not articulated in a 16 year-old mind, but at the core.

A toff in Borstal was, as you say, a stranger in a strange land. When you gave that bloody
Kensington toff some tobacco (loved everywhere in Borstal), cockney Charlie challenged you.
Your answer was because he didn’t have any. No difference of class or religion ever blinded
you – people were people. Your blessed mother taught you – and even Charlie agreed.

Poly High’s class structure was muted. Such a polyglot of races – I had to be careful not to
get shaken down in the boy’s room, but otherwise, skin colors, languages were splashed
everywhere. In San Francisco blue-collar work plentiful, paid well. Fillmore housed blacks
when the Japanese were vacated – sent to intern camps in WWII, but who remembered that?

Two-years apprentice in the trades, you observed paintwork, joints in the ceiling painted
too slowly, showing the edges.  Paint strokes on doors not matching the direction of panels,
cracks not filled, holes unstopped.  Dubliners were good at trades, took them seriously.  Work
parties at Hollesley, your place.  Painter, IRA bomber, writer, Catholic, drinker – serious all. 

A friend named Steamboat had a friend named Ollie – with his word got a job washing dishes
at a fancy restaurant off Union Square called Vasili’s, evenings. The master chef was named
Jackson; black, about 40.  The urban legend about chefs and women was true. Stunning,
elegantly-coiffured black women sauntered through for close discussions with Jackson.

There was a competition in Borstal which included an essay contest. The prize was 100
Players smokes. You’d been published from age 12 – those Players were yours! You could
write about sad, beautiful Dublin and include Joyce, Yeats, and O’Casey.  Shaw calling the
Brit judge a coward for death-sentencing IRA men Dunne, O’Sullivan – best to omit.

5.  Some Things Work Well.
I was nowhere near the accomplished writer you were. Dropping acid, etc., interfered with
an energetic reading program. Prior to Timothy Leary, I read O’Neill, De Quincy, De Foe,
paperbacks – Kazan, Rand, Ruark, Salinger (of course), Golding, Knowles, Malcolm X, Rose
Lee, Claude Brown, Christie. Books stacked – my mother read voraciously.  D.T. Suzuki next.

Gladly re-assigned, you worked like untold generations of your fathers. You talked a book –
the Ragged Trowsered Philanthropist – famous once, unknown now, about painters &
seething resentment of class structure in Britain. Your family loved it.  Hating bosses was
popular.  Memorable characters, vague ideals, socialist bitterness that you would rinse off.

Jackson’s kitchen was narrow – room for two. I missed a shift due to one of my two meth
experiences, but he said nothing on my next shift. One night I dropped acid before work. The
dishes looked piled to the ceiling, multiplying like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Jackson was
only shocked when I gobbled handfuls of rice thrown into the sink at the end of the night.

You had discussions with a hard-left boy who thought the Catholic Church reactionary.  He
held in contempt any who didn’t share his politics. He thought the other Borstal boys were
thieves, vainglorious pimps. He approved of you, forced into terrorism to achieve just Irish
demands. As for the rest, he held them degenerates.  You sang Red Flag for him anyway.

Socialism in 1967 was mild, utopian; I met an SDS hippy – he was drinking wine, crashing in
the Mission District.  After the Democratic Convention in 1968 the far-left got delusionally
angry.  Vietnam made us all protestors so I absorbed the rhetoric, but skin-deep.  Their
violence struck me as not only wrong, but stupid, futile. I knew better tripping on LSD.

You could recite a beatitude in Gaelic – or find something good in the English. Brendan,
for an IRA man, you were a bit of a hippy yourself.  Peeking out of your politics –  It’s all
okay. What’s the point of fighting
or hating? People are people – the sun is shining.
Eventually – let’s drink.  Even boxing, you nurtured a flower-child – fated to drown in wine.

My efforts toward religion, drug-saturated. I wandered into the Asian exhibit wing at the
Whitney De Young museum. Even on acid, the carved Buddhas never said anything. I had
no great insights, but it was peaceful. No burning bush presented in juvy. I saw a hippy
walk down Haight Street singing He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. That was it.

There was the kind of sunny day you’d know Christ died for you. So you said – for you more
than mere recital.  Brendan, I will be your china too.  For reasons that are deeper than the
cause of Irish independence, deeper than teen-experiences in detention. It took me
years, but to say it in Irish brogue, by Jasus, the atoning blood works well, don’t it?


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