The Tao of Sparrow

A poet, his bathtub, and waking up twice

One morning recently I woke up and looked out a third-floor window at a treetop full of sparrows. My feline companion cackled at them while my human compa-era slept. A thousand miles to the east, a man named Sparrow wrote a poem and sent it my way electronically:

The earth is a muffin, still warm inside.

After years of not writing this poem, Sparrow imagined it and gave it wings. And after decades of not knowing Sparrow, I sensed a rara avis who at the same time seemed intimately familiar.

I “met” Sparrow by reading his “Kite Soup” in Ascent magazine (see page 77), which in turn led me to America: A Prophecy: A Sparrow Reader, published last year by Soft Skull Press. Reading it confirmed my sense of encountering a co-wonderer. Sparrow’s proverbs — such as “A houseboat’s furniture need not float,” and “You can’t catch a spider in a spider web” — struck me as both wise and absurd.

A substitute teacher who’s never made more than $11,000 in a year, Sparrow lives with his wife, Violet Snow, in a village in the Catskills where he takes baths, talks with friends, studies Hebrew, practices Ananda Marga tantric yoga, and — like me — watches the sky and reads magazines he finds in the trash.

He is also, for me, one of the rarest of writers: one who gives expression to something akin to my own philosophy, which I’ve called “curvyedge.” The opposite of extremism and dogmatism, curvyedge is the tendency to move toward balance, articulated by such wise fools as Agatha Christie (“When I see the red signal — I can’t help forging ahead”), Mohandas Gandhi (“Strength of numbers is the delight of the timid”), Ralph Waldo Emerson (“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”), Groucho Marx (“I don’t want to belong to a club that will accept me as a member”), and Ursula Le Guin (“To light a candle is to cast a shadow”).

How amazing to meet a kindred spirit. Already awake, we awaken a second time to a world of new possibility, energy, and inspiration. Suddenly play takes on the importance of work and everything gains breadth, depth, and new layers of meaning. From where does the energy come when old souls meet? We are all connected, but some of us are especially connected.

Perhaps it’s a writer’s genius to connect with readers this way and then suffer, with varying degrees of patience and gentleness, fools such as me who respond to their words by writing to them.

What does Sparrow know that matters most? Where has my brother-in-spirit been all these years? He was born Michael Gorelick in New York City in 1953. His father was a Jewish-American labor organizer, his mother a Pennsylvania Dutch working-class woman. “Like all New York City children,” he says, “I believed sparrows were baby pigeons.”

A smart lad with aspirations to become a doctor, Gorelick took a turn at the age of 12, when he discovered and read a paperback translation of the classic Taoist book of maxims, Tao Te Ching, at his grandmother’s house in Philadelphia. (I own a dog-chewed copy of the same 35-cent Mentor edition.)

Lao Tzu’s advice — “Asserting yourself brings no credit,” for one — was originally addressed to a ruler. Centuries later, though, it was taken to heart by an impressionable (and possibly preternaturally wise) elementary school student. Almost overnight, Gorelick started moving consciously toward being, he writes, “what we call in America a ‘failure,'” determined now to grow up and be “a quiet, humble soul — perhaps a street sweeper.”

Gorelick did head dutifully to college, intending to study subsistence farming, but flunked out of Cornell in 1973 after two years. (He got a D in soil science.) Then he hitchhiked to Florida, where he worked in a sheet metal plant, painted houses, landed his dream job at a natural foods store, and gained a new name.

“Here was work I believed in: bagging raisins, prescribing orrisroot for pleurisy, beholding the yellow beauty of millet in its barrel,” he writes in a short essay published in The Sun. When confusion ensued after another Michael was hired, the appellation “Sparrow” was given by a woman herself named Jennifer the Princess of Love, who “looked like a Tarot card come to life.”

Renamed, Sparrow took wing as “the famous hippie poet of Gainesville,” writing poems asserting that “God is an outlaw” and other apparent heresies, and becoming a yoga adept.

This didn’t happen overnight. His iconoclastic c.v. includes stints at the Naropa Institute, where he studied with Allen Ginsberg and others; at Empire State College (which he calls “a school without teachers, grades, classes”); at City College of New York, where he earned a master of arts degree (not that he ever seems to have wielded it); and with a loose-knit group of New York writers and artists known as the Unbearables, who acted out creatively by collaborating on a doctored parody edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, and by storming the New Yorker office with comical signs reading GIVE OUR POEMS HOEMS and WE REJECT REJECTION. The latter activity garnered enough attention that the magazine accepted five of Sparrow’s poems, for which he was paid $250 each. (Two were eventually published.)

Like its author, America: A Prophecy demonstrates encyclopedic breadth. The book draws from material first published in such tiny and esoteric publications as The Unbearables Assembling Magazine and LUNGFULL! and some larger ones like Whole Earth Review. (The online finding aid to his personal papers, held at New York University’s Elmer Bobst Library, verifies a prolific literary output and shows that Sparrow has contributed both to Mahamatsya and to Mr. Puke Reviews, a feat that must be unique.)

Sections of America: A Prophecy are devoted to Iceland (where “the national bobcat, the White Penetrator, moves freely through city streets”); Poland (“Most of the world’s straw originates in the Zcuk Valley”); imaginary autobiographical essays about sexual relations with a horse, an ant, and Cher; and imaginary interviews, as well as some apparently real ones (with Tiny Tim, for example). Sparrow also writes about the significance of names, gives a humorous account of his telephone solicitation work, relates (through journal entries) his encounters with cockroaches, enumerates buildings he’s “had sex in” in Manhattan, elucidates his political philosophy via anecdotes about freeing flies and reusing old envelopes, and describes what it was like to meditate in various public places in New York City.

One essay focuses on the 14 cigarettes Sparrow has smoked over the past 34 years. “It has been 11 years since my last one,” he writes. “Quietly, I prepare for my next cigarette. I refuse to stop smoking.”

When one meets a kindred spirit, everything flows and all signs say go. At the same time, there may also be an odd sense of dancing on an airplane whose destination we don’t know. Sparrow seems to embrace this paradox joyfully. Though his campaigns were not heavily publicized, Sparrow ran — or slowly ambled — for president in 1992, 1996, 2000, and again in 2004. “No one realizes that America’s decline can be a boon,” he writes. “A civilization’s autumn can have the same virtues as retirement. It’s time to relearn chess, to listen to Dixieland jazz. I’d be the perfect president of a declining America, as I’ve been in retirement since 1973, when I flunked out of Cornell. I fill each day with an array of personal whims. I stock the bird feeder, visit lobbies of famous hotels . . . call my friend Sheila. I spend three dollars a day, and my life is plentiful. I can teach this to America.”

Imagine a president whose philosophy might be summed up in six words: Pay attention. Do no harm. Rejoice.

Sparrow now lives in a double-wide trailer near Woodstock, New York (just down the road from dozens of my cousins), with Violet (also known as Ellen), their daughter Sylvia, a cat named Gum, and a rabbit, Bananacake. If you’re passing through Phoenicia, look for Bananacake’s hutch or Sparrow’s special underwear drying on a line. (Sparrow wears yogic loincloths called lungota, which in his experience have birth control value, among other things.)

The man once described as the “bemused and bearded Rumi of the New Age poetry scene” also enjoys preparing and eating simple foods (no onions or garlic, please), copes with carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow (relying on voice recognition software), ponders the mysteries of life, and celebrates the beauty of “bathifying.”

“The bathtub is my church,” Sparrow affirms. Visualize him buoyed in a bath, almond soap at hand, growing wrinkly, slightly older, and a bit cleaner, perhaps composing a poem. Picture steam rising from the tub, perhaps a cat crying outside a closed door, and someone writing as if each word were his first — or his very last.

That’s my brother Sparrow.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.