A Poem for Pascha

There have been times in my life when everything seemed infused with spiritual meaning. The early 1990s had a lingering ring like cathedral bells. I felt very close to God.

I wrote his poem in 1992 and it was included in my book Finding Oakland, that year.


I have decided to follow
Winter’s last storm into the ditch
beyond the wall, which becomes
a drain, a pipe to the street,
the culvert under U.S. 101.
I have been treated well
and have reached the sea
at last. Remember me
by the dark rainwater stain
down the wall of my room
and in the winds of March
that sweep the shingles
and the gutters clean.
I will come home
for Bright Week, in April
with the willow blossoms
on the altar steps
the higher altitudes of birds,
bells at midnight, the turning
of the shrouds and vestments
white. Carried inland by
the softer, warmer tides of Spring.

© 1992 by Kyle Kimberlin

The meaning of Pascha.


“The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness.”

– Nikos Kazantakis

Oh, that’s profound. I think it’s a crock of crapadoo brought to a low boil, but it’s profound. Enlightenment is a process, not a product; a journey without end, not a state of attainable ability.

The student asks the master, “What is the way to enlightenment?”
The master answers, “Humility.”
“And how long is the way, Master?”
“How would I know?”

Moreover (strange word), between darkness and light there can be no agreement. Light makes darkness less so; darkness is changed by the presence of light. So Uncle Kyle says the meaning of enlightenment is to turn one’s back to the darkness, bow one’s head, and humbly pray to see the light … to be shown the next step on the way.

So we have established that the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ is full of hooey, while the author of Finding Oakland is not. That’s convenient for me. Hence, to dispel the shadows.

First, I’ve never cared much for phrases like, “the meaning of enlightenment.” It makes no sense; it’s a non sequitur. So is “the meaning of life.” How can one impart meaning to an abstraction? The only possible answer is, “it depends.” And it depends on an infinite number of things, because it depends on how a life is lived. So I think Nikos meant the function of enlightenment, or the purpose, or the goal. Not the meaning.

How then does the artist spelunk into the sunless caverns in search of the gradient distinctions of shade? By taking a little light along, of course. Most of us, when the day is done – hopefully with pages that weren’t there in the morning – have someone to love. Some memory of loving, loosing, living on. Or someone who loves us, or who has, or who will. Inshallah. That should be light enough.

attending mystery

I was just going to post a vignette for you to read. I’m polishing it up to get it ready to submit for publication. I think it’s about ready to go. It’s got a clean shirt on, and a good hat to keep the rain of its little face. It’s awfully small – only two pages – to go out alone in the bold and verbose world, but I’ve done my best by it. All the rewriting set me to ruminating a bit, along these lines:

On a recent morning, drinking my coffee and listening to the critical whispers of my carpets, I read a very nice – meaning thoughtful and well-crafted – article in the LA Times about death. Rather, about a man who will soon see the end of his life, and whose lifelong career in thantology and suicide prevention has made him a unique subject for consideration in the matter of impending death.

I should clarify that if the perspective of this article is to be entertained, it is not this man who will see the end of his life. One’s death is experienced by others.

Here’s an excerpt from Waiting for death, alone and unafraid, Los Angeles Times:

“In death, things become mere things — the statue of Venus in the backyard, the gyotaku print in the kitchen, the Melville-inspired shadow boxes — no longer animated by memory, the story of their provenance. It is as if their atoms loosen and dissipate.

The meaning of death is loss and sadness and inevitability. On the wall above the bed, he has hung a print by Breughel that covers a crack in the plaster. Here an army of skeletons wages war against humanity, and compared to the Chagall overhead, it’s a bleak and macabre picture of the final hour that without angels or signs of salvation is unremittingly godless.”

Here’s a paradox: if death is experienced by others, and things become mere things, how is it that the things – mementos, memories – which are the legacy of our loved ones become so abjectly, enormously dear? I think the writer of that article has it backwards. Things are things until they’re all we have left. I have things that came to me from hands still warm and hands now beyond cold, and I have enough compassion for myself and those who gave them to me to know better than to call them mere.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.”

What is such a widening circle? To me, it is a consciousness of compassion, and that consciousness is the function of poetry; in other words, the exploration of authentic human experience. We are all in this together.

There is a subset of authentic and universal human experience which we can call true for everyone, and which really make our emotions ring. These are the primary colors of our daily lives, the things which we carry everywhere, everyday, and which define us. They are love stripped of romance, fear free of titillation, and death devoid of pride. Also, the small moments and rare intangible things which offer consolation.

The problem for a poet who sits down with a notebook and a pen and hopes to dig in to truth is that these things are just so intangible. But then, intangible things are the poet’s brush and paint. We have to live with that. We have to stare death in the face because it is in the great commonality, and keep it right here – right here – in front of our dusty spectacles. And not blink. See the metaphor …. be the metaphor.

Does it help to be a little crazy?

Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such are glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. [Nabokov, Signs and Symbols]

There is a line in the book A Separate Reality by Carlos Casteneda which has stuck with me since I read the book in 1986, though I’m not going to spend a chunk of my finitude trying to find it and be exact: “I have my aly, the little smoke has shown me my death with great clarity.” And The Chink from Robbins’ Cowgirls says “Ha ha ho ho and hee hee.” I say it’s a mystery.

OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. My point is that poetry is for saying the things that are unsayable, for naming the truth the dog would tell you if he could talk. The poet William Stafford wrote this about that:

Your good dogs, some things that they hear
they don’t really want you to know —
it’s too grim or ethereal.

And sometimes when they look in the fire
they see time going on and someone alone,
but they don’t say anything.

Mark Twain wrote, “The dreamer’s valuation of a thing lost–not another man’s–is the only standard to measure it by, and his grief for it makes it large and great and fine, and is worthy of our reverence in all cases.” And I say Amen, and if anything depends on red wheel barrows and white chickens, then everything depends on how my grandfather watered his tomatoes, how grandma smoothed a quilt on the bed.

We are attending a mystery, a continuous and ineffable transubstantiation of Being, no less than the passage of galaxies through needles’ eyes, no greater than an hour pulling weeds in the front yard by the gate. Perhaps exactly the same size as a dog’s collar or a homemade pie. And how can we sit down and try to write it? Because of something John Gardner said, “The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind.”

That is compassion, and that’s the job of the poet, isn’t it? We aim to write something beyond us, something that can’t be contained by the margins of the page. We fail. Words fail. We keep writing. And in the end, what remains is a final kindness. Which brings me to the end of my post.

Here’s that little story for you.

Love Dogs

An inquiry into ontology or just a letter to my dog on the anniversary of her passing.

“A peace above all earthly dignities,
a still and quiet conscience”

To Tasha
(August 1990 – August 12, 2005)
at the Rainbow Bridge

Dear Tash,

I miss you, old friend. It’s one of those summer nights, like those last few nights of your short and beautiful life. Do you remember the way it would get warmer in the late evening, before bedtime, after the breeze from the ocean died down? You’d expect the evening to cool, but it doesn’t seem to. It’s the kind of night that makes a little dog itchy. You had some itchy summers in this dank valley with its blanket of sour sea air, didn’t you? I’m sorry for that. The pills weren’t really so much help.

Happy is happy with us here, but you know that ’cause she’s not there. She’s doing fine. You loved her very much, so you’d want to know. She takes a lot of medicine, but she’s OK. The Santa Barbara itch is bad this year. We’ve kept her free of fleas, but there is that something in the air again, that bothers all the dogs. She’s getting lots of baths, since she can’t take the pills.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, about the meaning of life. I told him I didn’t think the question “What is the meaning of life?” makes sense. Because meaning and life are two different kinds of things. Like the sound of blue. Life just is – it’s an abstraction with a different answer for every life that’s ever lived, and there’s no way to know what it meant until you get to the end and look back.

A better question is to ask “What does a life mean?” And even then, the answer has to be, “it depends.” Which life? And what do you mean by mean? I guess in this context – meaning life – we’re asking to know its importance, it’s value.

So life doesn’t mean anything until it’s lived, just as music doesn’t mean anything until it’s played, like a toy under the sofa isn’t the same as playing with it. And a leash on the peg in the hall by the door isn’t the same as a walk in the sun. Living is as living does, am I right?

Since this is a letter to you — meant to be mailed by some far fetched intentions of love through the veil into Heaven — maybe you’re expecting me to try to assess the value of your life. No, little friend. I can only tell you that my heart has not been unbroken since the moment when I touched your face as the doctor took your life. I have not turned my mind from that time and place, not for three years. And I guess I never will. Maybe I’m getting used to it, but I gave up hope of getting over it. You understand. At the same time, I have so many happy memories. I thank God for the brief, amazing gift of you.

No, if I have a life to sum the meanings of, it’s mine. I admit I’m one of those guys who keeps assuming the need before the necessary end. Then I can only hope that as you lie with the others in the shade of the trees across the creek, you see me walking through this other world of turning time and think my living has improved. Maybe you wish I had been like this — a little more well in my body, in the world where bodies matter — back then, when you were here to walk with me. I know you understand.

I miss you, little friend. I wish we could start over. And if there’s any consolation, maybe it’s that time is always speeding up. The world is spinning in greased grooves, faster and faster, and every precious dizzy turn brings us closer to the day. Which is maybe tonight or maybe forty years, which is the same difference.

Now it’s midnight, and starting to cool off again. I should go to bed and say my prayers and get a good night’s sleep, because tomorrow is another day. Or not, because nobody has promised tomorrow to me. But if it comes, and if the pale indifferent sun glows scattered through the morning’s vapor on the sea, thank God. I can go visit Happy and take her for a bath and a walk, and try to be a better friend to her than I was to you, and a better man walking on the good earth, trying not to stoop from his petty and fleeting concerns. And that, my fuzzy little well-remembered pal, is the meaning of a life.


for Rascal

My song begins at sundown
when the twilight wind comes up.
A cold wind, brushing
my hair and my tail.

Butterfly light is shining.
Butterflies lift me at nightfall,
and nothing hurts me now.
Look, the light is brighter than …

See the little dogs come running!
See the bigger dogs come running!
See the kitties and dogs come together,
and all the animals singing.

by Tasha
January 2004
based on a Pima Indian song

* * *

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

— Rumi

the quickening of madness

This just in, by e-mail from Senator Barbara Boxer:

Recently, it was discovered that the Environmental Protection Agency appears to have lowered the statistical value of a human life from $7.8 million per life five years ago to $6.9 million today. This recalculation of almost $1 million per life can have grave consequences for a range of environmental analyses and cost/benefit comparisons.

The EPA’s decision to reduce the value of a human life when it considers the benefits of new environmental regulations is outrageous and must be reversed. EPA may not think Americans are worth all that much, but the rest of us believe the value of an American life to our families, our communities, our workplaces and our nation is no less than it has ever been.

This new math has got to go. If these reports are confirmed, I will be introducing legislation to reverse this unconscionable decision at the earliest opportunity because it will lead to far weaker pollution protections for us and our families.

This is pure insanity. That anyone keeps such numbers is bizarre, and that Senator Boxer thinks the issue even merits contemplation is sad.

Money is an abstraction, a contrivance, a mere material means to an end. It is the sand on which the house of society is built. Society is a house of sugar in the path of a squall. A human life, or any number of them, does not exist in the same category of Being as money, or things of any kind. Life is an entirely different realm than stuff.

You can’t put a value on life, any more than you can find God with a telescope. It makes as much sense to say that a nickel is too much to pay for a life, as that a planet is payment too small. Because human life is sacred, standing in the corporeal but reaching for the divine.

Midnight’s Children Wins Third Booker

Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children (Jonathan Cape) was recently announced winner of the Best of the Booker award, a celebratory honor given to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. Rushdie’s novel about the birth of India won the Booker Prize in 1981, and received a second honor, the Booker of Bookers, during the twenty-fifth anniversary of the award in 1993.

Poets & Writers

Salman Rushie, poster child for my long-held maxim, Nobody has the right not to be offended. I wonder if he can go outside yet, without fear of death. I hope so. Meanwhile, practicing a religion still seems to mean having the right to be offended by other people’s thoughts.

So it goes, we make what we made since the world began.

easter marginalia

  • Today is Easter on the Western calendar; the first Sunday following the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. Happy Easter to you and your family, if you are celebrating today. Every last soul among you is in my heart and in my prayers. Congratulations on a good race, and the completion of your Fast, if you’ve been so inclined. Greetings also to my Jewish friends as they prepare for the coming of Passover.

    Ah, and there’s the rub. Passover hasn’t happened yet. Pascha (Easter) on the Christian liturgical calendar is the first Sabbath following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, provided that the Jewish Passover has passed. As it was at the time of our Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.

    I’m not saying anyone is wrong here; no schismatic, I. I’m just sayin’, for those of us who are Orthodox, it’ll be another month. So save me an egg; preferably red.

  • Today is also special for me, on a much more personal note. From deep in the dark and cedar-scented recesses of my cerebral toy box, this:

    On March 23, 1978, a girl named Carol and I sat in my 1967 Mercury Cougar, at the south end of Ash St. near the beach, and decided to go steady. I was in my mid teens, a junior at Carpinteria High School, and she was my first real girlfriend. We went out for about two years, until she dumped me for a serious bonehead whose name has evaporated in indifference.

    Do I mention this because I still pine? Carry a torch? Harbor resentment? Hardly. Because I’m a romantic? Well, I can be if properly motivated, but no. (Though I’ll admit those two years were mostly pretty fun.) I mention it only because of the irrefutable drama of the interval. Thirty (30 dammit) years. It was 30 years ago today. When things you can almost remember like it was yesterday actually happened decades ago, it makes you feel old.

  • It’s been a beautiful, warm and sunny spring day here in Carp. I walked the dog, had lunch on the patio over at my folks’ place,took a nice long bike ride. Now I’m off to work on the book.

Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.

living amazed

Back in 1976, I went to Santa Barbara for a reading and lecture by a monk and writer named William McNamara. The occasion was the publication of his book, “The Human Adventure: Contemplation for Everyman.” I came away with a copy of this book, which now rests here beside my computer. I am a bit concerned that its structure may not survive its first opening in a long time: it is brittle. (It was still the 1970s when last I opened it.) I note that the cost, printed on the cover, was $1.95; the hardcover was originally $3.95.

As three decades and change have flickered by like magic lantern hummingbirds, I have often quoted – apparently misquoted – the admonition of this book to live my life, “steeped in radical amazement.” Here’s what this brittle little book really says:

It is this spiritual life, as well as my prayer life, of which contemplation is the highest expression. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is a life grounded in radical amazement, steeped in wonder, and full of awe, immersed as it is in mystery and engaged in intercourse with God. Contemplation is, above all, the loving awareness of God, the invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant source of everything.

Over thirty years, and I keep coming back to this, to one afternoon in a church when I was 15, to one man from the woods of Nova Scotia. I remember, without risking damage to later pages, that he lived in a log hermitage with his dog and ate oatmeal at dawn. I have remembered many times to try to find that amazement in the short days of my finite life. Perhaps more important, I’ve kept watch for a vision of that amazement – the wish to perceive it – in others.

Last week, a friend told me how much he likes the word amazement; I believe I see that wish in him. And in the past few days, I’ve found it without a doubt in the newest blog in my blogroll, camera-obscura. Anyone who dances with her horses is truly living steeped in wonder.

The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

— TS Eliot, Four Quartets