Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Shake... Rattle... And Roll

Well... Monday afternoon about 5:00, not that long after I had written the previous post, I started to hear a whole lot of music playing in the air. It was a bit frenetic and I could understand every lyric, but I couldn't recognize the songs. I finally began to think it was a little weird for there to be music playing so loudly in the Petaluma Library, and then it dawned on me that it wasn't playing in the air at all... It was playing in my head.

I got up from where I was sitting and noticed a strange kind of fogginess that seemed to be filling my brain as gradually it dawned on me that this is what the brain doctors always call an "aura." It's a precursor to one of the grand mall seizures that I have at had intermittent times over the last 30 years. I haven't been taking my meds like I'm supposed to. They mess with my brain, which I guess is what they're supposed to do, and sometimes make it hard to think. It's also been pretty well established that they are the source of a lot of the irritability that I express in life and that I have been trying to get rid of. I also have discovered that if I'm very very careful about eating carefully and eating regularly I don't seem to have a problem.

Unfortunately for me, on Monday I pretty much didn't eat.

So, at around 5:15pm I looked around for a comfy chair that I wouldn't hurt myself in and sat down in anticipation of waking up looking at the ceiling.

And that's exactly what happened. I woke up with a couple of guys leaning over me asking if I knew where I was (like being in one of those spy shows where they blindfold you to take you somewhere and then quiz you about the trip) and when they gave me back my cell phone I couldn't figure out how it had gotten to be the end of November so soon. It took a few hours, and some serious pain killers, to clear the fog and the headache from my brain and I don't even want to think about what the hospital bill for that little jaunt is going to be. The good side, if there is a good side, is that my new computer (the one I just bought to replace the one that was stolen a month ago) was left behind at the library, but it was STILL THERE when I got back.

The bad side (besides the money of course) is that the DMV is most assuredly going to lift my driver's license for at least six months... Here we go again.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Home Sick Once More...

In about a week it will have been six months since I was last in The Crescent City. At the time that I left in June I expected to only be gone for a month. After that it became impossible to return for a while and I reluctantly settled into the idea that I would have to be away from home for three months or so. At the end of summer it was still obvious that I had no way to return and no place to go once I got there, so I simply sucked it up and put my head into the wind ahead of me, seeking a way to move somewhere without really knowing where that where was.

Now we are coming toward the end of the year once more. A year ago I was in a thoroughly devastated New Orleans with very few resources but with a sense of purpose and a hope for the future. I attended one of the annual Peace Stories concerts with my friend who had only just returned from exile in Houston (the first concert this year is Wednesday night, and I won't be there... but I hope she'll go for me). Last December I spent a lot of time with people who had nothing but hope and a dream, along with a fair amount of anger at the government, to sustain them. Yet, we were making it; we knew things could only get better… Hell, they couldn’t get worse.

But in some sense that is exactly what they did.

Now, a year later, there are far fewer people who have returned to New Orleans than anyone expected, the promised money has yet to be distributed to the people who need it, people who thought they could rebuild are still waiting for neighborhood plans, and insurance companies, and FEMA; many who simply can’t wait have already given up. Harry Anderson, who ran a magic shop and a nightclub in the French Quarter, has packed his bags and left town, my friend who ran the Irish Shop on Toulouse has left for Ireland, another friend is house hunting amid the frustration of little progress and less help, and when I was in Ohio a month ago I heard the story of a woman who had just accepted $30,000 for her house (about 15% of what it was worth) because she simply couldn’t hold out any longer. You can bet that someone with the resources to wait things out is going to make a boatload of cash on that deal!

Mardi Gras season starts in just over a month (when the 12th Night Revelers celebrate on January 5th) and it seems to me that this year’s Mardi Gras is going to be far less festive than the one – so controversial in its own right – last year. Despite what many people thought, last year there was a reason to celebrate, if for no other reason than the fact that we had survived. Like it says in Randy Newman’s song of that other great flood, they had TRIED to wash us away but we were still hangin’ on. Right now it’s looking like that sentiment might have been a mite premature. Any way you cut it, the road back is going to be a lot longer (and a lot rougher) than any of us first imagined. In fact that road seems to be getting longer and rougher by the day… even the street signs are screwed up.

There are, of course, people in New Orleans sticking it out, fighting it out, pulling it together and holding on to hope, but (and for me this is the most difficult part) I am not one of them.

I miss it… I pine for it… I want to help with the work and join in the celebrations. Despite every bit of progress and every moment of hope, every day I find another piece missing from my heart.

I want to go HOME for Christmas.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Salmon Creek Sunday

grey sky to grey sea
and whitecaps layout
the line as sea birds
dot the space between

shades of green and brown
accent the foreground
rivulets of mud
rain drops on the roof

north coast winter
beachside dark grey flood
a single surfer
drops in off the lip

two of us alone
sharing one moment
separated by
watery distance

Saturday, November 25, 2006


there’s a spider running
around my feet
in the kitchen
while i write

it reminds me
of one of the first
notes you ever left me
after we first met

i hope that none of them
were affectionately
called by the name
of charlotte

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ring Those Bells

For the last few days the brass bowl/bell that I use to begin and end my morning meditation has been acting a little out of whack. By taking a wooden mallet that is part of the set and turning it around the edge of the bowl it is possible to make the bowl resonate with a beautiful tone that builds exponentially as you round the rim over and over and over. Eventually the turning around the rim is almost effortless and with only the slightest addition of speed or pressure it is possible to make the bowl ring very loudly. Or you can simply lighten up, applying just enough pressure to keep the bowl ringing at the established level. This phenomenon is something that I use regularly as an example of what the process of meditation, patience and self-improvement is really like. It takes a while to get to the point of critical mass, but once you are there the process is nearly effortless.

The problem, however, is that the bell has not been ringing as it should. For several days, no matter what speed, what level of concentration, what magical thinking, patience, emotional peacefulness, speed or muscle-heavy effort that I applied to the process, the bowl would not ring. The problem was that I had oiled the mallet a few days ago.

The mallet had become very rough, dry and a little bit ugly. It made the bell ring beautifully, but it wasn’t very aesthetic itself. So I added a little oil to it and polished it up. Unfortunately, while this made the mallet look much more beautiful than before, it also reduced the friction that the mallet creates on the edge of the bowl and no matter what I tried, the bowl simply would not respond to the touch of the new instrument. This was driving me crazy. I would begin and end each meditation with an attempt to use force – in one way or another – to make the bell ring properly and after several minutes of frustration would eventually give up and strike the side of the bowl to get any ring at all (ironically, in such situations the best, most aesthetic ring is accomplished with the very lightest touch at the round curve near the base of the bowl). Needless to say, this process was not making my meditation period very peaceful.

Finally, yesterday evening, fed up with this problem, and beginning to feel not just a little bit inferior to the bowl, I decided to roughen up the mallet. I washed it with soap, hoping to dry out some of the oil and I scraped it with an aluminum cleaning pad to roughen up the surface and bring back its natural texture. And it worked. It took a bit longer to get the bell to ring as it should, but with some attention and patience the mallet and the bowl began once again to interact with each other and the tone began to rise magically in the room.

This morning the bell rang as easily as ever.

For me, much of the last fifteen months have been a trip around the edge of the bowl, over and over with nothing to show for it (no money, no work, no place to live), while at other times the journey has been a moment by moment experience of grace, moving me forward inch by inch, giving me manna - sufficient only to the day – for sustenance and support but leaving me without anything to arrogantly declare my own. Sometimes, often at the most unexpected moments, it has been a showering down of surprising blessings when everything flows as it should and I find myself laughing with the joy of the moment and the gift of the day. These times seem to come most often on the heels (or in the midst) of the rough mornings, the days of struggle, or the sleepless nights of disturbing thoughts and dreams.

The bell rings loudest when the mallet is dry.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In The Beginning Was The Word

For the last two weeks (ever since I woke up on Wednesday morning after the election) I have been buried in a life reflection (for lack of a better term that comes to mind this morning) with the purpose of finding a way out of the seemingly never ending limbo that my life has been plunged into since August 28, 2005. The reasons I picked this particular time to pursue this effort were three-fold.

The first reason was temporal, as the year winds down, as the sun recedes southward, the days grow short and the nights grow long, I am always drawn into a reflective mode in which I feel the call to self-examination and commitment as the new year gets ready to turn. It’s a behavior that is not really unique to me obviously, and it’s one of the reasons I am particularly enamored with the liturgical calendar. Observing certain seasons, and certain prescribed behaviors thereof, helps to maintain some kind of manageable perspective in the midst of the generally unmanageable reality of daily living.

The second reason had to do with missed opportunities. On that morning after election day my friend Hoz got married in Hawaii. I was supposed to have been at the wedding; nearly two years ago I declared “I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” But the exigencies of the last 15 months had so completely balled up my finances, my work, and my spirit in general that the fabulous opportunity this represented simply turned to so many grains of speculative sand in my hand. Paul was in Honolulu getting married; I was waking up in Petaluma unclear on what to do next.

The third reason was situational and practical. As I watched the slowly growing victory of the Democrats in the election it was very clear that the earth didn’t move of its own accord and while it would be nice to think that people just generally “got it” finally, the fact is that Nancy Pelosi put together a hell of an organization and marshaled her forces with the determination of a winning coach, or triumphant general. It struck me that if I was going to pull myself out of the ever-swirling spiral that has been my life since Katrina I was going to need some kind of plan. Planning, particularly over the last year (just in case you hadn’t noticed), is not exactly my strong suit.

So I began a self-imposed, self-improvement plan. 45 days (now 34) to Christmas Day with a set of disciplines, a regular time of reflective writing, and the goal of setting my life on a path that I can, once again, commit to.

What’s come out of the first ten days is the central importance of one thing that I have been working on for about 30 years: my writing. Beginning today, I am dedicating myself to a solid four hours a day of writing. A good portion of that will show up here, as I hope to return to essentially a daily blog (something that I have been clearly lax about of late) but other bits of it will go into work that I have had lying around in various stages of completion, or sitting in the cobwebbed corners of my brain, for a very long time.

I have been engaged by writing most of my life and I have made some kind of a living at writing, in one form or another, for much of the last 30 years. However, like so many writers (and would be writers) I am particularly adept at figuring out all the things to do instead of writing. Today, I am making a public commitment to change that reality once and for all. Like many of the other things I have included in this blog over the last fifteen months, I am staking my flag in this ground, on this relatively public forum, as a way of forcing myself to put up or shut up; as a way of attempting to be honest.

It’s not like I haven’t made these kind of commitments before. I’ve made them many times, but all the good intentions have almost always died in utero, generally due to a consummate lack of discipline on my part. I am posting this statement in an attempt to circumvent that one particular failing. People making changes in their lives are often advised to play their cards close to the chest. It’s a philosophy based on the idea that those who do don’t say and those who say don’t do. Well, that perspective has rarely worked for me, so I have decided to take a different tack. I am climbing these stairs and nailing my proclamation on the cathedral door (how’s that for a grandiose allusion?).

Here I stand… I can do no other.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Open Your Golden Gate!!!

It’s been over a week since the election and I haven’t written a thing about it, mostly because I am still in a bit of shock.

The big words, both before the election and subsequently with the virtual coronation of Nancy Pelosi as the first female Speaker of the House, have been those three words, initially coined by Fox News hate-monger Bill OReilly, “San Francisco Values.”

All I have to say is, "Hooray for San Francisco Values!"

I moved to San Francisco in 1977 to go to Baptist seminary in order to earn a Masters degree in Divinity and Social Work (a degree that the Southern Baptist Convention has exorcised from their curriculum as they have shunned their historical roots and moved backward to become the centerpiece of the neo-cons “faith based” base). There was no mistake in my destination, either in the program or the environment. San Francisco, more than the seminary, was the real choice I was making and I have been committed to the values represented by the people and the politics of San Francisco for what will soon be 30 years. What is seen as an epithet by so many is for me a compliment of the highest order. San Francisco values are Thom Butler’s values.

So, what do I believe these values to be? You might think that is something relatively difficult, and terribly complex, to answer, but it isn’t at all.

True San Francisco values (as opposed to those coined by OReilly) center upon a reality that I learned long before I moved to San Francisco 29 years ago. They are values that I was taught by my Grandmother in the DAR and my father who volunteered for WWII while he was still in high school. They are the values that I learned in Sunday School at the First Baptist Church. They are the values I learned at Sahuarita High School when I was required to take American History as a junior and American Problems as a senior. They are the values I was taught were the values of our “founding fathers” (and founding mothers by the way). They are the values that I began to glean from the Bible when I came to a place where I could begin to figure out those mysterious stories for myself. They are the values I learned from reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich, Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King Jr. and by being gifted with the friendship of people like Elizabeth Nordquist, as I evaluated whether I was made of the stuff that preachers are made of (a question that has yet to be fully answered incidentally).

Those values involve the right of all people (citizens and non-citizens alike, just as it states in the Constitution) to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of whether they agree with me (or you) or not. They include the right of people to think and speak freely, to love whomever they choose while still hanging on to the possibility of jobs and homes and health care and hope. Those values involve the RIGHT (not a privilege bought with PRIVILEGE) to food, and clothing, and safety; to free-speech, and free belief, and love and joy and hope (I said that one before... and I'm gonna say it again). They involve the responsibility of society to take care of the roads... and the water... and the air... and THE PEOPLE.


Last week Michael Moore dropped a great letter to conservatives that looks at what the “liberal agenda” is really about and implicitly compares the tactics of the two opposing political camps. It’s a good letter and I agree with him completely.

So here we are… 11 days after the election and 792 days away from a new president… HANG ON BABIES!!!!! HOPE IS ON THE WAY!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Feeling A Little Out of Sorts...

I pirated this image from my daughter's MySpace page because when I saw it earlier today I couldn't think of anything that expressed my sense of how weird it is to be here at election day in The Land of the Free and The Home of the Brave feeling so completely wacked out and out of sorts. Six years ago (when Jennifer was first voting and I was holed up in Palm Beach County, Florida watching the nightmare unfold first hand) could anyone have even fathomed how deep, dark, low and lost we would become in such an incredibly short time? It's like all of those Bush disclaimers... "No one could have imagined that people would use planes as missles..." "No One could have imagined that the levees would fail..." "No one could have expected the kind of insurgency we face in Iraq..."

Well, yeah... people did imagine and those people didn't vote for Bush. What we truly couldn't have imagined (or at least I couldn't imagine) was the extent to which one man and one man's friends could turn this country into such a cesspool of greed, corruption and failure and how easily they would do it with all of us looking on.

I really want to have much more to say about what I hope will be the outcome of this election, but frankly, it seems to me that most of it has already been said.

There's only thing I'm really feeling right now, after literally dozens of conversations where people have made the comment, "it doesn't matter who you vote for."

Three words (and the above photo) to that... YES IT DOES!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Weekend in Defiance

I just spent the last four days in the little town of Defiance Ohio (the first time I have been in the state where I was born since I was six months old) and it was a supreme delight. I was on a panel at Defiance College with Dr. C.T. Vivian (my personal hero) and several other new friends from New Orleans.

One of the great things... perhaps the only great thing... to happen to me since Katrina has been the wonderful people I have met because of the storm. Something is going on in my life and I really don't know what it is just yet; I still can't figure out if the more appropriate Biblical metaphor for my last fourteen months is Jonah or Job.

What I know is that I am blessed.

I am blessed by the kindness of Old Friends
I am blessed by the kindness of New Friends
Family... Home... Presence

But seriously... Can anything good come out of Ohio?