Tuesday, June 16, 2015


for Sara Levine

I dreamt I was taking an important exam at my former workplace, a medical school in Tokyo.  I am not certain what subject I was being tested on -- something like the history of the psychology of the sciences.  It was, I realized at that moment, an extremely important exam.  Why hadn’t I studied? 

“What’s the most important formula we’re supposed to remember?” I whispered to my nearest classmate, but it was too late.  The test was already being passed out.

The first part of the test appeared to be reading comprehension.  As a child, I had excelled when tested in this way.  This had led to an assumption that I was intelligent which had taken years to fully dispel.  

Now -- there were so many words I didn’t know.  One of the very first sentences included the world kentrobarbative.  What did kentrobarbative mean again?  Why hadn’t I studied!  Considering the condition of my life, how did I ever imagine that I could afford to be careless?

I was relieved to see that a column on the right side of the page included hints, notes and definitions.  But I quickly determined that none of the clues were the clues that I needed.  For example, there was a reminder that a stool was a kind of low chair near to the floor.  There was nothing about kentrobarbative.  

Kentrobarbative.  For some reason I thought the word might describe an emotional state.  Was it something about remaining centered?  (Amid barbarism?)  But then -- why the ‘K’? I looked at the word suspiciously.  Was it the name of a chemical process?  It seemed like that sort of word.  All I knew was that it was an adjective.  My life was definitely not going to get better anytime soon.

I woke up still racking my brain -- what was it, what did it mean?  My body was flooded with shame and anxiety.  I remembered I was 42 years old.  I remembered I had one front tooth that jutted out like a fang.  I remembered I was no one’s beloved.  I remembered kentrobarbative.

Overjoyed even while still saturated with misery, I dove out of bed.  Where was my clipboard?  Where was my pen?  I dumped my bag onto the floor, grabbed implement and scrap.  Lucky life: I was awake, the paper was real, the pen worked.

In block letters I wrote: KENTROBARBATIVE.  There it was.  I had retrieved it, hauled it out.  An actual dream word, dream vocabulary, delivered now into the waking world.  I admired it.  I wrote adj. beside it.  What I needed now was research.

What could it possibly mean, kentrobarbative?

Ken is an uncle, is a doll, and, if you’ve ever slept around in Tokyo, you know that everyone is named Ken.  Drunk amid the bright lights of Shinjuku, it seems you have so many options.  But, no matter who you go home with, you go home with Ken.  Even if you get busy in an alley, you’re in an alley with Ken.

TRO is a temporary restraining order, as one of my friends had needed recently, while splitting up with a boyfriend.  TRO also stands for the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization, active where I live now.  Tro are the traditional stringed instruments in Cambodia, where frankly I’d rather be.  Although the Taree Airport, in New South Wales, Australia, is currently only served by one airline, the city council has been lauded for their success in attracting investors and the future is bright for the airport with the baggage tag TRO.

There are three villages in Greece named Kentro: in Ventzio, Amaliada, and Messenia.  I have never been to Greece, but it should be admitted that I recently had a significant crush on a Greek woman with a highly spiritual nature.  Of all the faces I have ever seen, hers is the most transformed by a smile.  When, while walking in the street, I saw her stern face, I was never sure that it was her.  Tentatively, I would call her name and she would turn to me, smiling, my beautiful friend.

Certainly I hope there is no connection to Kentron, the South African arms company, now known as Denel Dynamics.  On the other hand, it is very likely the word does bear some relation to the Kentrosaurus, a genus of Stegosaurian dinosaur from the late Jurassic period, known for the imposing double row of plates running along its neck and back, which merged into spikes on the hip and tail.

Mark Mancini writes, “Perhaps the least cuddly dinosaur of all time, Kentrosaurus boasted some horrific weaponry -- and a rather perplexing sex life.”  A male making a careless or ill-timed approach would likely have castrated himself on some of his beloved’s harder, sharper parts.  Or, as Mancini points out, “When your partner has gigantic, upward-facing spikes all the way from her hips to her tail tip, making love requires caution.”

Barbative, of course, is a “real” word.  By which I mean it is a word currently in use in the waking world -- though I am quite certain that I have never used the word myself.  Barbative: harshly critical or blunt, sarcastic.  It also bears mentioning that my stories are often populated by people going out of their minds and those people are often named Barbara.  Even when they’re not, I wish they were.  Named Barbara, I mean.  Barbara is the first name that comes to mind.

Barbiturates, too, have featured in my life now and then, though mostly in an aspirational way.  You can mail-order enough from Mexico to see you out.  Isn’t it a sweet relief, just to know you have the option?  God bless Mexico.

I am not certain that we are arriving at clarity.  I am not sure that we should.  Once a meaning is certain, what do we do?  Peddle kentrobarbative online, try to get it into magazines, hope people on the street   start using it.  Petition for kentrobarbative to be shoved into Oxford.  Poor kentrobarbative.  It’ll just be a tool.  Same as all the other words.  Ignored or misused.  Life’s not so easy when you’ve got five syllables.  Pretty soon the youth of America are texting, “Fuk! dats kbt!!!”

Perhaps it is more wise and skillful to protect ketrobarbative from certainty and not shackle it with a final definition.  On the other hand, if kentrobarbative has no meaning at all, it is difficult to use.  We are effectively handing kentrobarbative over to the language poets, where it will be forced to bore audiences to tears.

We may choose to provide kentrobarbative a meaning which is strictly provisional.  A meaning which is only for us and for now.  For example:

kentrobarbative: adj. the uncertainty which is inherent when relating to dream words.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Notification Day
or, Salvation at Random

Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

I am waiting for a letter from the man I’ve loved passionately for years and I’m pretty sure it’s going to say he doesn’t love me.  Rather than wait in my room, I figured I might as well go to the library.  Soon as I get the letter my inner life’s going to be defunct for six months at least.  I might as well look after it now.

The library is brand-new, white-walled with white ceiling fans and broad windows that look out on the trees and the goshalas, or cow sheds.  The library’s collections have not changed since the move to the new building -- scriptures and commentaries, as well as whatever books hippie backpackers have left behind since the Sixties.  Lots of astrology, prophecy, flower remedies, that sort of thing.  It’s the right place if you’re looking for evidence of reincarnation or the nitty-gritty of astral travel.  Allopathy, on the other hand, merits hardly a footnote.  Here, too, are the complete works of gurus long since turned to poison: Osho, Adi Da, Sathya Sai, and the Maharishi all have their own sections.  Not far from the section ‘General Saints’ are four rows of Agatha Christie.  Hot season afternoons in Tamil Nadu are brutal and endless.  The ashram library is not without mercy.  

Just the same, some hippies did read real books, god bless them.  So far I’ve found Beckett, Borges, Duras, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Genet, Machado de Assis.  Or, from more nearby: Mahasweta Devi, G.V. Desani, both Nirad and Amit Chaudhuri, both Anita and Kiran Desai, Pather Panchali.  Like someone anticipating a long illness I’m stockpiling them now.  There are no drugs and no liquor in this holy town.  I figure I can read one paperback and gnaw on another.

Back here in the corner I can hide.  I’ve figured out which switch turns on the nearest overhead fan.  This is the history and science section.  No one ever comes here.  True, if I leaned to the right I’d be in healing, astrology, tarot and psychology -- but I am not going to do that.  I’m going to lean to the left and rest my head against the Q shelf.  (Education & Social Welfare)

Stuck in my head, extremely loud, is the very end of “Long and Winding Road”, you know, the soaring orchestral part.  I know opinion is mixed on this, with some preferring a more pared-down version, but I’ve always loved the orchestra, the soaring, the final plea.  Except for now.  Now it has become excruciating.  Once is lovely.  On repeat you really hear the desperation.

Today I expect to receive official notification that I am not loved.  How about that!  Living in an a holy town, one thing you learn is how the mind operates.  For example, the mind likes to have official notification.  It wasn't enough to just suspect.  Oh no.  I had to ask.  I even went so far as to demand an answer.  So if any point we need to ask, Whose fault is this? then -- we have our answer.

We were chatting on Facebook, my beloved and I, tossing messages back and forth, heavy on the emoticons, and I wrote something like, “By the way, I noticed you never say I’m glad you came or I miss you or Come back.  It was just one of those thoughts that slip in on the side.  He’s just one of those men who never say how they feel.  Anyway how could he, when I am all the time I love you love you love you

The message came back: I’ve been meaning to write you a letter.  I slammed the computer shut; I slid it under the bed to punish it, but then, of course, I couldn’t sleep, not a wink.  Finally I got up and dug through my luggage for the Xanax I keep for emergencies.  I allocate myself 6 Xanax a year, which I think is pretty fucking impressive considering life and the way that life feels.

I have three Xanax left but I couldn’t find them.  Instead I found the keyring with the keys to his apartment and the picture of us at the company Christmas party.  Shaking was about to start, I knew, so I just went ahead and stayed there on the floor.  I thought this was a pretty gruesome move, on God’s part.  I would have just let me find the Xanax, if I were God, and advertised myself as merciful.

This is a very holy town.  Did I say that already?  No liquor, no drugs, no orgies.  At least not that I’ve been able to find.  So if I want to feel drastically better, there’s not much I can do besides throw myself in front of a truck.  What, then, to shove at grief, what chair to brace against that door?  I am considering an in-depth study of The Norton Anthology of Classical Literature, from Homer to St. Augustine.  I will take detailed notes.  Doesn’t that sound commendable?  As one might guess from my location, I am quite a spiritual person.

We’ll leave out that my first choice involves a sling, a mixed grill of some of the more high caliber drugs, and losers, addicts, whores. . . whoever’s available really.  Since that’s not possible, here is the Norton Anthology.  Sin is hard to locate here, at least for the non-Tamil speaker.  The only thing that comes to mind is eating eggs.  Eggs are a big no-no for orthodox Hindus.  I know a place where you can get an omelet.  And I would totally go and eat 20 omelets, if I thought it might take the edge off, even just a little.

I am one of those people gone loose in the world.  One of those who were never quite firmly affixed to begin with.  At a certain point several years ago it was just easier for everyone if I ceased to matter.  It was even easier for me.  People think it takes money to wander.  It’s bizarre how little money it takes.  What you need most is to have almost no connections, no roots, no definite aims.  You can wander for years.  

For years the man I love had been saying, “Come.  Stay a few months.  We’ll see how it goes.”  I went, I loved him, I left when my visa expired.  I took the test.  Now I will receive my scores.  The next thing up is seeing.    

I’m a tremendously spiritual person.  Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it just now.  Here instead is Sheena Easton.  The song that goes “I’m Almost Over You”.  It’s a joke song, isn’t it?  Didn’t realize that until now.  Look it up: the original lyrics (now in The Torch Song Hall of Fame, Akron, OH) go, I’m to-tal-ly de-ci-ma-ted.  My heart is hamburger mash.  Then the money and marketing people got involved and said, “Hey, can you tone it down a little?”  They kept pushing and pushing until it became “I’m Almost Over You.”  The feeling however remains the same.  I’m learning so much!  Thank you, this is all so tremendously valuable.

The library of the ashram is known primarily for works pertaining to the great saint of jnana yoga, as well as for a large collection of texts regarding the philosophy of advaita, with interpretations ranging from the most classical to most dubious.  Advaita is popular now.  Now itself is popular now.  People are making big money from something so quick it can’t be said to have any duration at all.  Yet there doesn’t seem to be any getting out of now either.  It’s an odd world, is it not, into which we’ve been marooned?

He didn’t seem to approve of anyone so I thought I I’d better check his opinion of me.  It didn’t seem masochistic when I did it.  He talks about how all his friends are falling apart.  It depresses him.  He says that everyone he knows just get worse and worse.  He says that, of all the people he knows, he is the only one getting better.

It’s true that he always seemed disappointed by the way that I cooked and looked, walked and talked, slept and fucked, dressed and acted, but I thought that was just his style of loving.  Like the deep and steady love of a old grandma, bitter after Grandpa drank himself to death himself to death and didn’t leave her any money -- and now here I am, the ninth of eleven uniformly disappointing grandchildren, wanting the crusts cut off my grilled cheese.  I thought that his was that same deep and disappointed school of love, the bitter school.  He told me several times that he did all he could to spare my feelings.  I’m glad he told me that.  I would not have guessed.

Whoops.  Slouched against the wall my heavy sweaty arm knocked down this laminated sign:  
Do not replace books.  Put them on a table.  
A book misplaced is a book lost.
The sign won’t stay up now.  I tried.  It’s going to need more tape.  It’s not good for books to be misplaced.  As far as we know.  It’s certainly not good for the people looking for them. For people however, it is good to be misplaced.  At least for awhile.  I mean, If you are over 14 and willing to learn something.  I suspect it is not good for a person to be misplaced for too long.  Eventually you end up lost. 

Do responsible citizens making sacrifices in aspiration of a well-upholstered future realize that there are now countless places like this one, where misfits fallen out with the world have given up on anything earmarked as sensible?  

Why have we come?  In the beginning, here in the holy land, there was the hope that reality might prove more amenable, more flexible, that it might make room for us, or even provide the means for success (surprise!) by means of little-used and mysterious channels.  Might we not qualify for Divine Providence, simply for renting rooms here?  Total delusion, it turns out, but rent is cheap and there are peacocks and swamis, chai and cows in the street, rhesus monkeys stealing small children’s snacks and even langurs, down from the hills to ransack the tamarind.  And -- when all of that gets to be too much -- here is the library.

I have always been too abjectly grateful toward men who go to bed with me.  It’s highly off-putting.  With this man I’ve been to bed far more than any other.  Therefore he is approximately God.  Is it any surprise he should decide he is too good for me?  (His special name for me is Dog.)  I am strenuously grateful.  I have always been this way, even when I was 23 and somewhat adorable, in a lop-sided way.  I try to be humble.  I think it’s nice to be humble.  Other people help by agreeing that I am not worth much.

Somehow I thought it might helpful to watch the video of “I’m Almost Over You.”  Dumb, I know.  And who do I see but the man whom I love, the man who doesn’t love me, who oddly enough looks very much like Sheena Easton sitting there at the piano.  Hello?  Is this a coincidence meaningful?  Another question: why is Mrs. Easton hoisting an arcade game machine over a railing and shoving it off of the balcony?  Is that something that helps?

It occurs to me that I’m going to need is a new reason to not do drugs.   Like survival, but more compelling.  He was adamant that I not do drugs.  He thought that drugs were bad and especially bad for me.  It’s true that I don’t necessarily have the number one most orderly mind.  I also might be just a tiny bit sensitive.  Obsessive, even.  He didn’t want me to drink too much either.  It’s easy to drink too much.  Since drinking almost always seems like something that would help.  He expected me to go to the gym, collect accomplishments, turn a profit.  I guess he was trying to turn me into something he thought he would like.

Please understand: keeping myself going was just a little project I had, like a houseplant you bring back to life so you can give it away.  It was never a crusade.  You understand, it’s nicer to putter on Sundays if you have a small project.  That’s how I felt about survival.  In this earnest holy town I maybe got a little gung-ho: pure veg, gym, meditation, sit-ups, no liquor, no drugs.  But it was still just a very small project and it sort of made sense -- or anyway it did when I had a very beautiful lover, eight years my junior.

Every 20 minutes or so I get up and walk very slowly through the library.  It is excellent to wander in this way, from one subject to the next, from the scriptures in Tamil or Kannada to detective and suspense, from cooking to Theosophy or Pure Land.  As far as I know this is the only place in the entire town where it is possible to wander empty-headed with no chance of being hit by a motorbike, taxi, bullock cart or truck.  Although the entire town is holy, the library is the only place you can actually relax.

Almost every book in the library out of print, brown and decayed, with a frontispiece turned to lace by moths.  This library, like all interesting libraries, consists almost exclusively of failed books.  Books that never flourished or else have long since fallen by the wayside.  I could with almost perfect accuracy wander the stacks muttering, Has-been!  Failure!  Remnant!  Failure!  Trouble for nothing!  Loser!  Nobody even remembers you!  I do not do so only because I am a backwards and contrary person.  These books occupy an advanced stage of neglect just shy of oblivion.  How could I fail to be fond of them?  I am a partisan of that with stumbles, then falls.  This does not hold true for certain gurus, or their collected works, which may without regret be used to line bird cages.  

Some time ago I fell out of the world.  The shiny, accomplishing world.  I was not found to be well-suited.  I did however intend to return.  To renew my membership.  Several times I visited.  Such strange shapes!  I meant to return, sooner or later.  I believed that I could.  All I needed was a good reason.

I’m not entirely alone in this part of the library.  There’s this lady: pixie-ish, hippie pants and armpits, fifty-something, German maybe, sitting on the marble floor in the middle of the aisle, directly below the fan.  She’s always here.  She reads Osho or Calvin & Hobbes.  Or stares into space.  I’ve talked to her a few times.  The first time was when she walked up to me outside the meditation hall and told me my shoes would be stolen.  People are like that, she said.  She said her half-brother stole the inheritance she was going to get from her father who suffered from dementia but she talked to the photos of her gurus and they told her that it didn’t matter because soon the world’s biggest banks would collapse and nobody anywhere would have any money.  She would have told me more about the forthcoming apocalypse but I put my hand over my intestines like disaster was imminent.

I’m probably going to end up like her.  Some non-negotiable hurt will drive me right out of my mind.  Actually, this is probably it right here.  Wheeeee!  It’s remarkable how few human connections I have.  “You’re far away,” people tell me; they tell me so wherever I am.  Within the last several years almost everyone I used to know has become important.  Meanwhile it appears I am becoming smaller and less visible, which is an odd sensation and by no means entirely disagreeable.  

I loved him.  I loved him and he did not even notice.  He had some other idea of how it was supposed to be.  Like his crazy sister in Italy.  His sister with her perfect kitchen.  Her kitchen in which nothing may ever be cooked.  Because then it wouldn’t be perfect, would it?  

He doesn’t love me.  Not anymore.  So now I won’t be able to boast that I have a very beautiful Italian lover.  A sex genius.  Stop.  Stop, please stop.  

Walk.  The library, subject to its own mysterious dictates, includes even the section S: Miscellaneous.  Here are some titles from that section: The Oaken Heart, As Bill Sees It, Little Known Facts About Well Known People, Making the Most of Yourself, Self-Reliance,  Mathematics in Fun and Earnest,  Jealousy, How to Sleep Better, Other Men’s Flowers, Ask Marilyn, Choosing Civility,  Happiness versus Mental Fetters, Retirement: Plan Now for Your Best Years, Scoundrels & Scalawags, Why Men Can Only Do One Thing at a Time, Personal Accomplishment, The Handbook of Reason.

I believe there is such a thing as liberation by means of distraction, or salvation at random.  This is nothing official or scriptural.  This is my own thing.  The chance to be rescued, in the heat of the endless afternoon, from the poisons of memory, from pains too great to be borne, from one’s own bitter mind enamored of its own fury and bile.  To be saved, at random, by whatever is here, is real and alive.  However shabby and dog-eared it is, even if it crumbling, unfashionable and just this side of oblivion.  This is no big deal salvation.  Still, it has been found to work now and then.  The library is open every day, but only for a few hours.  You must make good use of your time.

Not just Sheena Easton, not only the Beatles.  Dionne Warwick has also shown up several times.  With her sparkly dress, her spacious nostrils, and her hair just so.  Much as I adore her, I had to turn her away at the door.  “No, sister.  I can’t.  One verse of ‘I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again’ and I am taking the bus to Pondy and staying drunk for a week.” 

“He’s gonna be sorry!” announces this demon here, as it holds a guitar, hums, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.”  Epic speeches, isn’t that the rumble I feel now in my brain?  Like an epic hatching of barrister cockroaches, all of them explaining at once why he is wrong, wrong, wrong.  I could say, accurately, that he doesn’t approve of anything or anyone else.  I share my defective status with the entire universe: his doomed family, his luckless friends, his worthless job, his subnormal co-workers.  A totally backwards municipality.  A nation where it rains all the time.  The fact is I loved him, love him.  Adored him, adore him.  And it’s best to just to leave it at that.  

Disappointment is not a mistake.  What did the Buddha say?  (I’m an incredibly spiritual person.  It’s coming back to me now.)  He said, unsatisfactoriness pervades existence.  At that point in his life the Buddha was not even dating.  Still, he saw.  Nothing does what we expect it to do.  Nothing takes the edge off, not the way we think it will.  It’s not me, I want to tell the man I love.  Disappointment -- is just the way that it works. My lover disappointed me, too.  Of course.  (Fuck.  I wanted someone who thought I was marvelous.)  From the man that I love, disappointments and wonders were all the time gushing forth.  I could not ask for more.

Look at the Swiss pixie lady now, cross-legged with her prayer beads in the history section.  Are those mantras she is muttering?  Or does she think someone is there?  Does she imagine the big banks collapsing, her evil half-brother penniless in the street?  Does it cheer her up?  Does it make her feel better about all she has lost?  How easy it is to become unmoored.  How effortless to end up the ghost of one bad idea, defined by one old and irreparable hurt.  

What I love the most, what I really love, is this fan.  Both the breeze and the sound.  I like God best when God is described as an ever-present hum.  Above, beneath, within everything.  That’s when God seems most commendable.  The very best sound.  Something like a ceiling fan.

A little bell.  A small tinkling bell.  A young woman in a blue sari edged in gold is walking through the library and ringing a bell.  It is time for all visitors to leave the library.  Now I will go and say a prayer at the shrine of the saint.  Then I will go back to my small room, with its peach-colored walls and its enormous fan.  I must check the computer.  I am expecting a letter.

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras, Summer Rain
translated by Barbara Bray
Scribner, 1992

I’ve read half a dozen of Duras’ short novels, but when I found a tattered, moth-eaten copy of Summer Rain languishing on the shelf at the library, I’d never heard of it.  To my surprise, I enjoyed it as much or more than any of her more famous works.  As soon as I finished, I turned to the first page and reread.  For fans of Duras, this is definitely a book worth searching out.  It needs to be returned to print.

Reading reviews from its English publication 20 years ago, the book was criticized for “paper-thin characters and surreal dialogue”.  The critics, it seems, the critics wanted another book like The Lover, a book that is tremendously elegant but also instantly comprehensible, like an art movie guaranteed not to confuse your date.  Summer Rain is far more strange and, to me, more interesting.  It’s the love story of a boy “between 12 and 20” and his sister, amid a pack of feral children, in a colorless suburb.  Nobody finds a place in the world; nobody minds.  I imagine fans of Clarice Lispector or Marie Redonnet devouring it, as well as neo-surrealists, collagists and poets.    

And -- I loved the “surreal” dialogue of which the critic complains!  Sure, sometimes it seemed like profundity and other times like pseudo-profundity but -- when I reread the book my opinion of what was deep and what was shallow had changed.  An excellent discovery, I thought, and evidence of success.  The dialogue is also often hilarious, if you revel in highly peculiar turns of mind.

Maybe twenty years ago people read Summer Rain and were dumbfounded but -- I reckon many readers have caught up with Duras since then.  The beguiling strangeness of this book will win it at least as many friends as detractors.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies
translated by the author
published in French, 1951
published in English, 1958
published by John Calder, 1958, and by Penguin in 1962

It is always a relief to read a book like this one and be reminded that life seems this way to someone else, and not just to me.  Otherwise I start to think that other people feel, I dunno, like people in beer commercials, pretty much chipper all the time.  This is a bleak and hilarious book.  I was on board the moment the narrator announced, in the first section, “For starters, I forgive nobody.”

Of Beckett’s three short novels, Molloy has the reputation of being the most important.  My personal belief is that that’s because most people buy the 3 novels in an omnibus edition and only get as far as the first one.  To me, Malone Dies is every bit as interesting and readable -- and even more funny.  That or my sense of humor is becoming more bleak as I age.  Which is certainly possible.

It is a wicked book, such a true one and funny in the blackest way.  It is the sort of book that would be perfect to read if you were dying in hospice from cancer and your life had not gone particularly well, to read aloud to your roommate, also dying, also not such a great life, and together you would laugh helplessly until someone had to push the ‘nurse call’ button.  But seriously, don’t wait that long to read Malone Dies.  It’s a great book.  And you don’t have to wait until your life is worse to enjoy this book.  Your life is already bad enough.

Addendum: Advice on reading Malone Dies.

I understand that many people coming to this book will be academics, for whom it will be only one infinitesimal step in their accreditation and career path.  But for the sake of other people who are, like me, reading in hopes of pleasure and truth, and who don’t have academic training in literary theory and whatnot, I’ve found a way of reading this and other apparently “dense” texts that really helps me.

With my notebook and too much caffeine, I sit and read ten pages.  I read with attention, but without trying too hard.  After the first ten pages I say, “Yeah, whatever!” and go back to the beginning and reread.  I read approximately 20 pages.  After that, I take a break.  A little later, or perhaps the next day, I read another 20 pages -- starting not where I left off but 10 pages back.

Thus, by the time I’ve read a book, I’ve actually read it twice.  But this doesn’t feel laborious.  In fact it’s much easier.  Rereading gives me a chance to read with something like ease, with appreciation, and with questions in my head besides, “What the hell is happening now?”  This gives me confidence and when I finish a book I’m more likely to feel that I actually READ it and didn’t just, you know, look at all the words.  I apologize if this is obvious and dull-headed.  I hazard it here just in case it might prove useful.

Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

3rd series 

This exercise-book is my life, this big child’s exercise book, it has taken me a long time to resign myself to that.  And yet I shall not throw it away.  For I want to put down in it, for the last time, those that I have called to my help, but ill, so that they did not understand, so that they may cease with me.  Now rest.

-- Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies (p. 127)

Too Near the Street

My favorite dog is gone.  White, brown, black, and smart, she was the #1 dog at Only Coffee.  Every morning she met me a block away and escorted me to the coffee man, whom I often greeted with praise, “Best coffee!  Best dog!”  In this town of begging dogs, the #1 dog refused to acknowledge biscuits and sought only tenderness, most especially for her neck to be scratched, which she requested with the gentlest nudge, careful never to bump the hand that held the steel cup brimming with hot coffee.  Every day without fail she was here -- but now she has been gone three days.  Tomorrow I will have to ask.    

The #3 dog, whom the other dogs usually do not allow near, was bouncing off me this morning, clumsily rejoicing in attention.  The #2 dog, usually so cordial, appears nearly catatonic and barely lifts her head from where she lies in the corner.  I think the #1 dog is almost certainly gone.  Tomorrow I will have to ask the coffee man, “Best dog gone?”  No emotion, please.  So close to a street like this one, it would be self-indulgent to express surprise or upset when an animal is crushed beneath a tire.  It happens.  Yesterday, when I locked my door and realized I’d left the fan running, my first thought was, “If I get killed crossing the street the fan might stay on for days.” 

The last thing you must do before you exit the ashram gates is eradicate any hazy wisp of dreamy peace that may linger in your dazzled mind because now you must contend with the street and people really do die this way, mashed right in front of the ashram gates, yes recently, yes foreigners, yes Ms. Curie completely dead.

Along with the towering roaring lorries, the buses with blaring horns, there are of course the beeping cars, the speeding vans, the puttering erratic rickshaws -- all in a hurry, all swerving -- but the greater difficulty is to dodge the motorbikes and bicycles coming in every direction, plenty without lights and all without helmets.  One favorite strategy is to travel on the very edge of the road, against traffic, so that every road, however narrow, is actually a 4 lane highway.  Reliably, too, there are the pricks who, because this is a difficult stretch of road, like to speed up, lay on the horn, and blast through terrifying everyone out of the way.  Classic Indian traffic in other words, but keep in mind that traffic’s much heavier nowadays and most people are talking on their flip-phone while they drive and texting on their smart phone with their other hand.  The actual driving is done with one’s elbows, and only God is watching.

Thus it would be ideal to cross the street with one’s full attention, intent on the task at hand, but unfortunately this is not possible because the rickshaw men, seeing you poised on the brink, assume you want a lift and putter along blocking your line of vision, which is anyway already blocked by the buses swapping passengers and a vanload of pilgrims who thought it was a good idea to stop right here and purchase melon.  The beggars need money -- a hand, palm up, poked right in your chest -- and the holy men figure you could buy them at least a coffee.  The dogs come by too and, although most of the cows that amble alongside the road are good-natured, others will abruptly swing their horns or even kick and you can’t really blame them can you, along a street like this one?  Overall, it appears to be a conspiracy to distract you just long enough to reduce you to mash.  Meanwhile there is a shrine every five feet, with worshipers clustered like flies, because the invisible world is evidently as crowded as this one, and because urgent work is available for as many gods as will hazard a visit to this world reeking of sandalwood, cowshit, jasmine and monoxide.   

Spiritual Terms Defined: Circumambulation

My husband, from whom I am estranged, maintains that circumambulation is my favorite word.  Indeed, on this matter there is no reason to doubt him.  Few things please me more, or as reliably, as walking devotionally clockwise.  For me, the best circumambulatory path is the one that circles the hill around the home and temple of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  A dozen years ago, in celebration of one of His Holiness’s birthdays, the hill was planted with hundreds of trees and is now a young forest, full of light and green, where grazing cows and devotees amble along a path lined with mounds of carved prayer stones.  The custom is to circumambulate the hill -- a walk of perhaps 20 minutes -- before entering the temple, but I love the path so much I often circle, arrive at the temple gate and decide, “Not yet.  Around again.”

In the holy town where I live now, I circumambulate the shrine of the saint and the saint’s mother so endlessly I fear that I resemble one of those tremendously serious foreign devotees who are quite literally loopy.  To tell the truth, I just love to circumambulate.  And I will circumambulate anything.  Buddhist, Jain, or Hindu shrines, even churches.  Tapas bars, intimidating bakeries where only French is spoken, luxury shopping malls, gay saunas in foreign cities.

When I was in first grade, I spent every recess following the yellow painted lines on the edge of the asphalt portion of the playground at Matthew Thornton Elementary.  I remember I found it absorbingly interesting that the yellow line went everywhere, but ended up in the same place.

Eventually a letter was sent home to my mother.  I remember her reading it solemnly, then asking, “Is it hard for you to make friends?”  Both of us were figuring out that I was a somewhat peculiar child and we were both surprised.  I can see now that I was just getting my bearings, studying the perimeter of a strange and exotic place before entering.  It didn’t mean that I didn’t like school, that I didn’t want friends.  It is the pattern of my devotion. 

After the Writer

If I could call back from the beyond every page I’ve ever written, there would be hundreds of pages I wrote before I ever wanted to be a writer.  Then there would be thousands and thousands of pages I wrote when I wanted to be a writer, when my teacher said that I could be and I believed her.  Then would come this page, which seems to me the first page of afterwards, when that wish had become too painful and too cumbersome to sustain, and yet I continued to write without stopping.  This both is and is not an admission of defeat.  I had to give up the dream of ever becoming a writer.  It got in the way of writing.

Spiritual Terms Defined: Awakening

Visitors to India, having already created the idea of enlightenment, also created a junior grade known as awakening. Awakening means you’ve had a very big and special spiritual experience, and you belong to a very special, elevated strata of humanity, but you don’t quite have all your shit together yet.  As one of the awakened explained to me, “I already had the big one.  The cord’s been cut.  Now I’m just consolidating the experience.”

The mantra of the awakened is: I’m not a seeker, I’m a finder!  In fact, all that appears to have happened to most of these people is that a very special glaze has been added to their personality: a smugness, like plexiglass, encases them.  

It is effortless to make fun of the awakened, but it is easy, too, to see how they ache.  Someone told them once, many years ago, that they were tremendously special and, although it has not solved their problems, they cling to it, like a struggling, aging actress who won an Oscar in her youth.  Is it not glorious to win an Oscar?  Is it not gruelling, the way life goes on and on, so generous with its pains and insults?  When my envy passes, I can feel pity for the awakened.  It’s obvious that it gets lonely in there, beneath the clear glaze which, contrary to appearances, is every bit as hard as stone. 

In Defense of Terribly Spiritual People

A gentleman here at the Shanti Cafe has just ordered “One baguette, toasted, sliced French style, not end to end!  Six slices please.  No, cancel that!  Eight slices.”

Obviously it is time for me to be going.  Because I do not want to be here if the waitress comes back with seven.  But this is how it is with spiritual people -- we suffer from precision.  Do you understand how this happens?  In the meditation hall you struggle to be aware and note every sensation, every thought.  Pretty soon, god help you, you care how your baguette is sliced.

Yesterday, in this same cafe, it was a holy German lady, in white, with multiple scarves.  Her toast was not toasted enough.  She kept sending it back, but it didn’t seem to get any more toasted.  Finally she sighed tragically and announced, “No!  No, it is NOT all right!  But it will HAVE TO DO!”  I could hear that her world was under siege and, there she was, with nothing but fluttery scarves and bread that was practically raw.

Personally, when I feel this upset about toast I go to my room and lie down for a long time, but I do understand where she’s coming from.  In a way it is completely astonishing that people are coming here from all over the world to be quiet and open and sensitive.  It’s as if you went out for a walk and, when you got to the part of the path wh ere the stones are most sharp, you announced, “OK, this is where I take off my shoes.”

Ramananagar, the part of town in vicinity to the ashram, was tranquil once.  It’s not anymore.  Along the main road there are seldom breaks in the noise and filth; all the time you’ve got to keep dodging blaring traffic and pushy beggars, cows and cowshit, dogs and dogshit.  There are often people sprawled in the dirt at the side of the road and sometimes they are actually dead.  (If you’re not sure, you can check by the presence of flies.  The flies always know.)

This is where we, the aspiring devout, have come to be open and aware, vulnerable and present.  That seems to me exactly right.  Because what skill could possibly be more needed now than the capacity to keep one’s heart open in a madhouse?

Just the same, I ought to have more patience with the terribly spiritual people and not always roll my eyes at them, at us.  There are many times when I arrive at day’s end and feel totally astonished that today, again, no one is handing me a Valium and a stiff gin and tonic with which to wash it down.  Surely today was sufficiently traumatic to merit liquor?!  But no.   I am left with only the feeling itself, unmitigated, the habit of paying attention, and the knowledge that there is very little under my control.

Real World

When I write to friends in America or Japan, I feel the need to explain to them that I am on another planet.  You know, on the off chance they haven’t already noticed.  

But I am NOT going to be one of those insufferable people who insist that their planet is REAL and everyone else’s is just made-up.  I don’t know anything about that.  Where oh where is the real world, about which we have heard so much?  I don’t know the answer.  But, if I had to put money on it, I’m guessing that it’s none of those that we see here, neither yours nor mine.

a/c restaurant

If you, too, have spent the hot season in a tropical country with only enough money for a very small room in which you sweat more or sweat less, but never quite stop sweating, then you will understand how the discovery of an a/c restaurant, tucked in the back of an over-priced hotel, may feel like a surprise gift or secret ability, like the discovery of a henceforth unrecognized supernatural power.

You will understand, too, how the restaurant’s total lack of atmosphere is perceived by the sweat-soaked wanderer as total luxury.  Beige walls, blocked windows, fake wood tables with dowdy woven placemats, bulbous copper coated water glasses only ever filled halfway.  In a place where holiness, filth, chaos, and color abound, this place resembles nothing so much as the 24 hour restaurant of an international airport.  It is nowhere.

What a relief it is to be nowhere.  How lovely it is to visit nowhere, to spend an hour or two nowhere, now and then.

There are three painting of glaciers, all under blue skies, that almost decorate the restaurant, but somehow fail to do so.  They could be photos of downy baby ducklings held up with thumbtacks for all the decoration they succeed in providing.  They do, however, succeed in communicating the primary message of the restaurant: only the a/c matters.

Staff members are numerous, but they come in only two categories.  There are overbearing 40-somethings with pinkish shirts, beer bellies and spectacles.  Their bellies are accentuated by a tendency to walk around with their hands clasped behind their backs.  

There are also delicate young men in white shirts who move very quickly, smile often and nervously, and who appear scarcely older than 14.  In spite of their extreme youth and lack of ability in English, these boys are vastly more helpful and pleasant than their overseers, whose only function is to collect money and to tell you what is this evening not available. 

The restaurant has only one soundtrack and only one song, a refrain of Hari Om Tat Sat that plays in a loop of nine and a half minutes, breaks off abruptly, and starts again.  It is a fairly soothing sound and only irritating if you pay attention.  Actually I’m sorry I mentioned it.

On each table is a small white vase containing a red rose.  The management is not aware that the fact the rose is almost always dead is highly discouraging, at least to those prone to discouragement, or that adding water to the vases could well prove pivotal.  It is not appreciated when the customer attempts to add water to the vase himself.

I can recommend the Dingri Dolma, though the button mushrooms are sparse.  The nan are flaccid and over-priced -- you’re better off with rice.  The lunch thali (130 rupees) comes in a dozen copper dishes but none of them contain vegetables other than potato or cabbage.  (For a proper thali, you must go to Seshadri ashram, where they will scoop fresh pumpkin or beet curries, as well as spinach or green eggplant, onto your banana leaf for just  ₹55.)

The veg biryani with onion raita is a safe choice.  Although the quantity of raita is insufficient, more can be requested at no cost.  It is true, too, that, although the biryani at dinner is satisfactory, at lunch it is far tastier.  It is not known if the cause of this is a different cook, the same cook becoming tired and discouraged in the course of the day, or some other factor.

As it is part of the best hotel near the ashram, the restaurant collects the wealthiest of the devout, the most sensitive, the most elderly, those often heard to admit with a sigh, I need my comforts.  A number of the these people refer to themselves in the third person: “this one”, “this person”, “this Janet”, “this so-called Janet”.  It is rude to eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers.  Also if you don’t listen it is much easier to eat.  

Among foreigners, the number one topic of conversation is energy.  There are those who believe in manifestation and those who do not believe in manifestation.  The latter may be heard declaring to the a/c restaurant, “What need have I for manifestation?  There is nothing I need!  Nothing in the entire universe.  Nothing!”

However, the primary clientele of the restaurant is not foreigners but upper-class Indians on pilgrimage.  These Indians are not certain that their vast wealth is due to the gods but, just in case the gods are responsible, they intend to keep those prayers and pujas coming.  They drag behind them luxury-brand children so fixated on electronic devices that they may or may not look up at some point and express astonishment that they are no longer in Mumbai.

The restaurant has beautiful dishes, heavy cutlery, and steel coffee mugs, as well as the copper water cups mentioned previously.  However, the tiny spoons for stirring one’s coffee are only clear plastic and even appear likely to melt.  I suppose the proper small spoons had a tendency to be stolen.  There is something oddly appealing about very small spoons.  I admit to having stolen at least three in my life, though never from expensive places and never from friends.  One I stole from an airplane lunch.  I would never steal a spoon now of course.  I am practicing to be holy.

In the same vein, the boys -- young men -- who work here are all handsome, with very tight pants, very dark skin, and astonishing teeth.  They are all very handsome, which is not to say they are attractive, not sexually, not to me, certainly not.  In 2 to 4 years, precisely on their 18th birthday, they will become attractive and not a single day sooner, or else I would be someone else, someone awful, and someone quite different from who I am quite certain I am.

On the other hand, is there some reason why every waiter appears to be more or less the same age, the same height and adorable in the same way?  The soles of their shoes are smooth.  They like to sprint toward the kitchen, then slide through the swinging double doors.  

In a holy town like this one, one seeks to learn to pray without ceasing.  Thus: may the managers always be distracted as the beautiful waiters slip tips into their pockets.  And may the waiters always be nimble enough to dart away from sudden obstacles.  

To me it seems a very peculiar variety of magic, the way an a/c restaurant in a holy town, over-priced and devoid of atmosphere, may nonetheless be found, at the height of the hot season, to be the setting for a succession of surprises and discoveries, as well as a distraction and a solace through the endless blazing Tamil afternoons. 

Spiritual Terms Defined: Pranayama

During the evening chanting, a man sits leaning against a stone pillar near the Mother’s shrine and practices pranayama, the breathing exercises believed to aid in the development of concentration and the purification of energy.  

These exercises often require closing one or the other of the nostrils.  Thus, every time I see one of these yogis, one hand splayed across their face, I always hear the same helpless nervous voice.  My nose fell off!  It just fell right off.  SO embarrassing!  But it’s no problem.  I got special glue and glued it back on.  It’s going to be fine!  Now I just have to sit like this for the next hour, holding my nose on. . . 

The Chambakka, or Rose Water Apple

for Jeffrey

In the library of the ashram is a brown and brittle copy of Summer Rain by Marguerite Duras, which I read every day between 10 and 11.  I’d read a number of her short novels, but never this one, which seems to me the loveliest of them all.  Today as I read, a workman came to wash the windows.  Above the tattered brown edge of my book, I spied the dense black hair on his dark legs and glanced up to see his short broad-shouldered frame, his lungi tucked up for work, and his shirt the color of red dirt, but with shiny bits sewn in to outline a shape like the petals of a giant flower, and I felt longing burst through my body, the way an old house catches fire all at once.

The workman came and sat on the bench beside the window nearest me, not five feet away, and, though he was washing the window and I was reading Duras, it didn’t seem that either of us were doing much besides sneaking looks at each other.  From the casual way that he sat, one furry leg tucked beneath him, I could see his delectable regions clad in dark blue briefs.  A tent rose in my holy pants, which I sort of pretended to hide, but didn’t.  He stared into my eyes, then reached down to tug on his big toe, and I was absolutely certain that he was sending me a message.  

Not thirty seconds had passed.  Already I was all the way porno.  What a terrifying person, I thought.  Sex addict.  So far gone that in less than a minute he’s ready to attack the guy washing windows in the library!  I fastened my eyes on the pages of Summer Rain and didn’t look up once.  I don’t believe in casual reading.  I always take notes.  Only on page 105 does Duras supply names for all the children -- and by then they don’t need names.

I am someone who is really far gone, I noted with both horror and wonder. Hardly different from a drug addict really.  And in an ashram library!  Certainly this was not the first time I had learned that holy flowing pants require more constrictive underwear.  

I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder.  It was the workman.  He looked into my eyes and held out a pale green fruit.  An unripe rose water apple, or chambakka.  More or less the shape of a pear, but smaller.  They grow wild everywhere here.

The man was my age, his gray hair cropped short around his skull, and every part of him looked as rugged and as solid as the sacred hill itself.  What about the Sanskrit aisle? I wondered.  No one would catch us there.

I gnawed at the small green fruit.  It had almost no taste -- like a teaspoon of lemon in a cool glass of water -- and still it was juicy and pleasant to eat.  When I had eaten all that I could I held the core and stem in my hand and went on diligently reading.  I didn’t want to be someone terrible, someone out of control.  A bony pious foreigner had come to share my table.  He stood and read silently from the Srimad Bhagavatam.  There was little question but that he had long since transcended random boners.  Meanwhile, in Summer Rain, the teenaged brother and sister had fallen passionately in love and no one seemed concerned about it, not even their parents.

Another tap on my shoulder.  The workman wanted to take the remains of the fruit from my hand.  The window was open.  I gestured as if I would throw them out myself.  He didn’t want me to do that.  I felt his calloused fingers brush my palm, rough and moist, like the tongue of a cat.

He moved on then to wash other windows.  I went on reading Duras, while also attempting, in a corner of my mind, to calculate the degree and intensity of my delusion and madness.  I had been so entirely certain we were about to have sex.  And now it seemed to me that we had. 

Spiritual Terms Defined: Realization

The peacock is trying to cross the road.  3 times now he’s charged into the street, lost his nerve, turned around and run back.  I do the same thing.  The people who say I’ll get killed this way are probably right.  I hate to watch the peacock, but I can’t look away.  Every attempt seems certain to be a gruesome tragedy, albeit one gaily decorated with fresh blood and peacock feathers.  

After 3 mad dashes and 3 terrified retreats amid blaring horns and swerving cars, after scaring the crap out of himself, assorted motorists and myself, I see a lightbulb turn on above the peacock’s head and he’s like, oh yeah, I can fly.

What's Not Lost

When I walked up to Only Coffee this morning the #3 dog ran laps around me and the #2 dog came up to be petted.  I was glad to see them and sad just the same, so I dragged a plastic chair out to sit in the dirt by the road, drank my steaming coffee from its steel cup, and tried to explain to myself, again, that this was just the way it works: we lose everything.  

(Actually, it appears there is something we do not lose, which we cannot lose, but this is scandalous, as well as highly controversial and I am still looking into it.)  

I was sitting there, thinking these things, and petting the head of the #2 dog, when my elbow was bumped -- thankfully not the arm holding the coffee -- and at my side appeared the #1 dog: white, brown, black and smart.  She ducked under my left leg and presented her neck to be scratched.  

I set my cup down on the ground and patted her with both hands.  Then, because of a lifelong intolerance to sudden good news, which is not how I was raised, and with which I have never learned to cope, I knew that in another ten seconds I would be dripping with tears, which is just not something one does streetside in Tamil Nadu.

I contrived a quick fix.  Gazing across the mad street and past the sacred banyan, I gazed devoutly upon the sacred hill, Arunachala, as if I were absorbed in contemplation of the very highest matters, as if I’d been struck down by some of those super-big-deal extra-fancy revelations that so often come, in this very holy town, to terribly spiritual foreigners, insights so profound that I had no choice but to weep.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

In every event the entire universe is reflected.
-- Nisargadatta Maharaj

New Small Stories from India, 2015


from Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

Why do I write?  I write because the spiritual people here at the Shanti cafe are currently attempting to reach a consensus about whether or not to turn on the fan.  One individual explains that she suffers from “a wind imbalance” and might thus be maimed by a breeze.  Her friend suspects that she suffers from a wind imbalance too, but she’s not totally sure.  Other people point out that it is May here in Tamil Nadu, nearly 40 degrees Celsius, and that the sensation of sweat dripping ceaselessly from one’s skin is highly unpleasant, regardless of whether the underlying sense of unease they are experiencing is, in fact, a case of sunstroke.

I write because if I just started screaming obscenities it might mean that I am turning into my father.  The sweat rolling off of my hand is causing the paper to buckle.  Although I am praying that they turn on the fan, I am not willing to speak up.  I am worried that my voice might sound agitated -- or much, much too calm.

I have also informed God that I will donate 75 American dollars to charity if a biker walks into the Shanti cafe right now and lights up a big fat cigar.


from Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

It’s the time in late afternoon when the light softens at last and, in the courtyard of the ashram, pilgrims admire the peacocks and share biscuits with the monkeys.  I’m perched with my book on the steps just outside the office of the cashier, watching people come and go with donations and requests.  A small monkey -- a juvenile, male, rather scrawny -- peers into the office doorway and almost enters but then doesn’t.  The monkeys at the ashram are much too tame -- they steal food and scare children.  You’d be wise to give them a wide berth.  Indeed, even as I sit here the guard has come with his stick to ward off the monkeys that lurk by the temple door and tug on the hems of the ladies’ fluttering silks.  This particular monkey goes on lurking beside the door and peering in.  He makes an odd cooing noise.  The cashier, familiar with the antics of monkeys, turns from his computer now and then to keep an eye on him.  People with business come and go.  The monkey dodges their feet.  I expect someone to shoo him away, but nobody bothers, and he just goes on waiting, just outside the door, making the same small, sad, dejected noise, like he needs his mother to be paged on the intercom.  Finally a time comes when there are neither donors nor petitioners.  The cashier stretches, rests his eyes.  He turns to look at the monkey, shakes his head, and sighs.  He opens the second drawer of his desk and extracts a banana.  The monkey enters the cashier’s office, receives the banana and departs.

What's In It For You

from Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for taking a moment’s respite from the management of your own micro-celebrity to read this paragraph.  I promise it won’t be a waste!  At the end of this paragraph you are going to be demonstrably more impressive.  Now: if we can just quickly come to the agreement that this is literature.  Why should you decide that, you ask?  Why should you do me that favor?  I’ll tell you: because then you become (instantly!) a person who reads literature.  A sophisticate -- and with hardly any eye strain.  Then you need only select one writer you totally adore: Calvino’s a safe choice, so’s Beckett.  (If you want a woman, it has to be Alice Munro or Elizabeth Bishop.)  Then you choose one writer who is totally overrated: Murakami is a safe bet there.  He has to be overrated, doesn’t he, since he’s so entirely pleasant to read?  There: that was easy wasn’t it?  See how we’ve helped each other out?  Isn’t this a beautiful reason to ardently click ‘like’?  We are now literary people, you and I.  All the more reason to drink and have affairs.  OK, that’s it, we’re done here.  You may now resume dressing for brunch.  You are welcome, too, to photograph yourself reading this paragraph, in a highly sophisticated pose. 


from Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

“I never met anyone who came here earlier than I did,” he says.  “When I first came to the ashram, I was the only foreigner.”  He tells me stories of the saints, one of whom he knew when he was a solitary beggar on the street.  I ask him questions until the dal and veg are cold on his banana leaf.  “You must feel like the universe has shown a particular interest in you,” I tell him.  It sounds fatuous, I know, but I meant it.  Imagine knowing the saints before they were statues, when you could hang around and talk together on street corners.  

“My life has had a few perfect moments,” he says.  “One more story.”  He takes a few bites, clears his throat.  I wait for more news of great souls.

“Perfect moments exist.  They show up now and then.  Like when I was in 6th grade music class.  Awful class.  Taught by a sour old spinster who always made the boys sing stuff like, “I’m stuck on you.”  And what little boy wants to sing that?  Our job was to listen to the record, then try to sound the same.  She was that kind of teacher.  But I guess “I’m stuck on you” was getting old, because that day the needle jumped and the record played I’m stuck -- I’m stuck -- I’m stuck -- I’m stuck -- I’m stuck.

“Seriously, what are the chances of that?  Blew my mind.  I was 12 years old and I thought it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened.  Of course the music teacher had no clue what was so funny, so special.  She had absolutely no sense of anything.”

Soda Waters of Tamil Nadu, In Review

from Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

In a town as holy as this one, some sins are hard to come by.  No meat, no liquor.  Eggs, too, are a sin -- though I know a couple places you can get one.  The truth is, it doesn’t bother me when multiple venues for sin and distraction have been closed off.  I’m versatile.  I can always find something else about which to obsess.  

Soda water, for example.  In the extreme heat of May, with alcohol prohibited, juice questionable, and sugary sodas nauseating, plain soda water is the best chance for a fleeting sensation of cool.  I sometimes walk, amid the sweltering heat of noon, five blocks along the mad swerving blaring street just for a bottle of soda.

Of the four brands of soda water available here in town, I find that each is entirely different, though it is difficult to say exactly how.  Nonetheless, an attempt has been made.  It is my fondly-held wish that the following will prove useful to other drinkers of soda water, both in Tamil Nadu and beyond. 

Kali’s Club Soda, product of Kalimark (Sipcot, Pallipati)
Small, sharpish bubbles.  A tendency both drying and pebbly.  An unmistakeable though lemon-less sourness.  Highly transient.  Brings to mind a one-night stand with someone who looks good, but with whom you have nothing in common.  Though it really seems like it ought to work, halfway through it is already flat.

Lehar Evervess Club Soda, product of Pepsico (Palakkad, Kerala)
Evenly-spaced bubbles, like small amenable thorns.  Brings to mind delicate blue-green glass beads and the hour of noon.  You can really taste the water!  A sense of reliability one does not generally expect from bubbles.  If this soda water was a tanned teenaged boy, you wouldn’t hesitate to entrust your lawn to him.

Kinley Soda, product of CocaCola (Vellavedu, Tiruvallur)
Insistent bubbles, but with a hint of inconstancy.  Milky and tongue-heavy.  Sustained bitterness, even to the point of gourd-ishness.  Brings to mind a decent man, but with almost no chin, or a sensible person useless in emergencies.

Bisleri Soda, product of Bisleri Intl. (Bangalore, Karnataka)
A net fine enough to catch the smallest fish.  Sandpaper too smooth for the task at hand.  Miniscule bubbles spaced too far apart.  Vegetal notes.  Brings to mind a reputable college and the boy you are supposed to like.  Contains too much water.