A Quiet Subversion

With the right frame of mind you can find peace anywhere, anytime.


| Spring 2016



Koan

It strikes me that the real essence of reclusion has more to do with a fundamental quality of separation than it does with holing up in a backcountry shack or a monastery cell.

Photo by Flickr/Nauright

Let me start by saying that I am not some sort of all-star recluse. I live in a cramped apartment with four other roommates, one of whom is my girlfriend, in a busy section of San Francisco, the most tech-crazed, screen-dazed, app-happy city in the world. I have a laptop that I use five or six days a week. I have several episodes of Seinfeld loosely memorized. I have a bank account and a library card. I even have a habit of feeding the neighbor’s cat little flakes of tuna from time to time.

But let me also say that I don’t own, and have never owned, a cell phone. And that on Super Bowl Sunday I took a 25-mile hike and watched coyotes instead of commercials. And that when Osama bin Laden was shot I didn’t hear about it until a full three weeks after the fact. And that all my heroes are iconoclasts who turned their backs and at least partially walked away from “the red dust of civilization.”

Some folks read the newspaper with their morning coffee—the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. I prefer to gulp mine down with ancient Ch’an recluse poetry.

Am I out of the loop? Well, that depends. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” I’d argue that I’m in the loop, the loop that Hsieh Ling-yun and Meng Hao-jan and Wang Wei and Han Shan and Su Tung-P’o and Shih-wu and countless others call home. It’s a bigger loop, an older loop, a far more stable and enduring loop. Dating back 3,200 years, the Chinese poetic tradition represents the longest continuous literary movement in world history.

I think of my reading as drawing water from some bottomless, timeless well. In goes the bucket. The rope slides through my hands. I’m sitting on the couch in the living room, the French press on the coffee table, a book open in my lap, a chipped mug balanced on my knee. The city is asleep all around me. The sun is asleep beyond the earth’s curve. And now up comes a cherry tree in blossom, the tolling of a distant bell, a burning stick of incense, a small man in a wooden boat on a perfectly calm lake at dusk. The images are plain and clear, refreshing. I drink deeply, then lower the bucket for more.

So here’s the question: What exactly am I? What do we call a guy who practices waking before dawn and getting jazzed on caffeine and Buddhist nature poetry? A guy who loves how the wisdom of simplifying and slowing down and not buying useless junk resonates across the centuries? A guy who has been awake for hours, sitting in silence, and is just now hearing the first screaming police sirens of a brand new day? What do we call a guy who closes the book of poems and opens his computer and talks with his girlfriend and has Seinfeld lines running through his head? A guy who loses his library card and curses a blue streak? A guy who has taken no vows and owns no prayer beads?