Jasmine like blossoming moonlight
has taken captive the blue dusk.
I am fourteen, fifteen, sixteen,
the radio plays Malagueña.
Boats wait in that other twilight,
palm trees spread their black fans.
Years later at a wedding,
a middle-aged mariachio
sings Malagueña with such passion,
the guests fall silent as in a cathedral.
Few comprehend the lyrics,
but the meaning soars
in the arches of the vowels, held
so long they span constellations.
Maybe it never really ends –
life driven by desire
for a different life. You never
stop waiting, never,
a famous actress said in her old age –
she who we thought possessed
all we ever wanted to have.
The music cannot be undone.
It casts the human voice beyond
blue, into pure indigo –
not star jasmine, sparse
petals, but the full-moon
white narcotic flower –
as the lights on the pier
sink shimmering shafts
into the ocean’s dark love.
~ Oriana © 2012
Confused reader, I know that the title of the post is “the heaven of no desire,” while this poem speaks about the inevitability of desire. More shall be revealed.
I remember talking a friend about a woman we both knew -- let’s call her Betty -- and my growing frustration with Betty, who had admiringly promised to give me a poetry reading, but was ignoring my emails, or else wrote long, overly intimate ones detailing the storms of her messy love life, with not a word about the reading. I carried on about how I got no respect. My friend smiled: “You are suffering because you WANT something from her.”
The correctness of this shone like a million stars seething in the desert night sky. I decided to reach for the Buddhist cure: drop the desire. “There is nothing I want from Betty,” I began saying in my mind. After about a dozen repetitions, there was indeed nothing I wanted from Betty. Restored to calm, I carried on without resentment.
Within a day or two, I got an email from Betty -- still not about the reading. I waited a while, then answered it briefly. A longer email followed, with more love troubles. Again, I answered briefly and not right away. Then two more emails, still with no word about the reading -- obviously she never really intended to invite me -- but now the tone was respectful, ingratiating even. Again I kept aloof, she got the message, and that was the end of that “learning experience.”
I never forgot this miraculous cure, and the formula “There is nothing I want from X” became one of the best tool in my mental stress-management kit. “X” varied over the years. At one point it became “There is nothing I want from America.” At another, “There is nothing I want from po-biz.” Sometimes it took a lot of repetition, but it always worked. Well, almost always. (More shall be revealed.)
MARK DOTY’S “HEAVEN”
Primed by the my experience of the “heaven of no desire,” I fell in love with this part of Mark Doty’s poem called “Heaven”:
. . . I have a friend who sometimes sells
everything, scrapes together enough money
to get to the city, and lives on the streets here,
in the park. She says she likes waking
knowing she can be anyone she wants, keep any name
as long as it wears well. She stayed with one man
a few days; calling themselves whatever they liked
or nothing, they slept in the park
beneath a silver cloth, a “space blanket”
that mirrored the city lights, and the heat
of his dog coiled between them would warm them.
I knew, she says, I was in heaven.
Isn’t that where those beams washing
and disguising the stars have always called us:
the anonymous paradise, where there isn’t any telling
how many of these futures
will be ours? It was enough to be warmed
by steam blurring the café windows, to study
how grocers stacked the wet jewels
of produce and seem fed -- though the wine flush
would brighten everything, and dull the morning
of working a thankless block. She held out her hand
enough times to catch a torrent,
though little was offered but the sharpening chill
of the street lacquered by rain, perfected
and unyielding. It’s a little easier
for a woman to panhandle; that’s why
my friend needed the dog. Sometime,
when the weather turned, she’d go back home,
at least till spring. Longer,
maybe. But not before arriving at afternoons
when she wanted nothing, whole nights
without desire, since everything passing
was hers. Though she could not participate
in the mortal pretense of keeping anything;
that lie belonged to the privileged,
who hurried along the sidewalks
just outside the stone boundaries of the park.
And though they tried to warm themselves with it,
they still required those luxurious,
frost-tipped pelts, the skins ripped and tailored
out of their contexts. She knew she could lie there,
with her stranger, with the living animal between them.
~ Mark Doty, My Alexandria
One morning not long ago I woke up at perfect time to see, in my west window, the full moon about to set. Then, out of an east window, I watched the ice-blue of dawn sky enlarge its crevice in departing night clouds. I thought: not only am I posthumous; I am in heaven.
It was the heaven of no desire. The stranglehold of desire for fame (the true f word in the poetry world) was gone. I was gladly harvesting the poems I already had, using them mainly for my essays. As for the desire for great love, I have already had my share. I wanted my own life and not Prince Charming. And I had my own life, the quiet life that I loved. I didn’t want another life. I have indeed learned to count my blessings.
I proceeded to the computer and wrote these reckless words to a friend:
<< I've had this succession of insights:
1) I'm posthumous -- great love is behind me, poetry is behind me, writing jobs and teaching jobs are behind me -- basically all active life is behind me and all that was to happen has already happened; only writing the blog continues to have its surprises
2) being posthumous, I realized I am in heaven, since, to my astonishment, I've managed to drop desires -- my remaining desire is to cultivate desirelessness
3) My first task is to love myself. Service to others will follow from that. >>
I should have known that the second “insight” -- “I am in heaven” -- would be an instant challenge to the gods, who’d quickly show me otherwise. And sure enough, within a few hours of my “heaven hubris,” an eruption of insanity followed -- more medical insurance craziness that I thought was behind me now. A new obstacle emerged! More phone calls to make, new bad options to choose from.
And it was impossible to say, “There is nothing I want from the insurance company.” Obviously, I wanted coverage.
Once this storm subsided and I resigned myself to the idea of “greed before health” -- the insurance company’s greed takes precedence over the patient’s health -- a new disturbance trespassed on my heaven. About twenty noisy teens gathered in the open garage across from my house to hold an advance New Year’s party. I knew this could go on into the wee hours. Again, it was impossible to say, “There is nothing I want from these young people.” Obviously, I wanted quiet.
My first happy surprise was that after I tremulously begged the teens to be more quiet and suggested they close the garage door, they did just that! And they dispersed before midnight.
The following day, the insurance problem was resolved in my favor.
And my friend replied that she too was in heaven! She got there by remembering that she was loved -- and therefore was not suffering due to clinging attachment to any one person. This reminded me of a similar moment in a stormy on-off relationship with a certain man. During the second serious “off” period, I became involved with someone else, who was nourishing me with the loving attention and affection I was starved for. Then man #1 -- more handsome, more intelligent, better educated -- called. It was a tense conversation. Suddenly I remembered: “I am loved.” And instantly I calmed down. Softness entered my voice, and, in response, the voice on the other end. We ended the conversation in a relaxed and cordial way.
I think the secret is feeling secure when you remember you are loved -- or whatever else makes you feel emotionally secure. Then you don’t have any overwhelming needs. You don’t need anyone’s approval because you are already loved. And you don’t scare people away the way needy persons do. A needy person is likely to be perceived as a “hungry ghost” or even a vampire. It’s a vicious circle: the more intense your need to be loved, the less likely you are to be loved. This is the paradox of “Be happy, and the beloved comes.”
So yes, not having a grasping need is certainly the key to heaven, but there isn’t only one way to get beyond grasping.
Let me also tackle the obvious. I realize that the Buddha had a brilliant insight: drop the desire, and you no longer suffer because of it. I’ve experienced the wisdom of that psychological discovery on more than one plane. What I don’t know is whether the Buddha thought a young and anatomically correct person was actually capable of dropping desire, especially in the realm of Eros. I certainly would not dream of saying to anyone with youthful levels of sex hormones that happiness is easy: just drop desire; there is nothing you want from him/from her. Actually, you want everything, which is a dreadful mistake.
Let me clarify: certain kinds of desire are not especially age-dependent, but when it comes to eros (which means “yearning”), biology has the upper hand, and I mean the brain’s “here we go again” wiring for falling in love, madly, the amphetamine rush of mental mingling, and not just simple (?) lust. And even the most “pure” of those love circuits are still mixed up with hormones. Affection, no, but erotic love, yes, always, and in women maybe even more so. As I used to say, “You can’t separate soul from hormones.” On top of all the other crazy complications.
But even here there may be a solution, one my mother tried to teach me, and in vain. She said, If a man you desire is making you suffer, start repeating He’s not for me, he’s not for me. Someone better is coming. Likewise, if a job is not coming through, start repeating, It’s not for me, it’s not for me. Something better is coming. Now and then I remembered my mother’s wisdom when it came to jobs and “things in general.” But I never managed to remember it when it came to love objects. Hormone levels had to come down first.
Enough of that. Let me share a poem that commemorates the shattering of my early dreams, and the birth of the “greater dream”: to become a writer. And I have indeed become a writer! Not a famous writer, but once I managed to drop the desire for fame, I was filled with wonder at simply having a vocation and the ability to do what I love doing. It’s an unfailing source of joy.
RAINBOW OF FIRE
December 29, 1999
A sunset rainbow like a door of fire
opened the eastern sky.
To the west, fiery clouds
and the ocean with its million mirrors.
But the rainbow was unfinished,
an ascending fragment.
Beyond it, like a faint echo,
another red-shifted arch.
It was California winter,
our season of rain and roses.
I remembered a double rainbow
in full splendor, a jeweled gate
when I was a young girl
about to leave my homeland.
Now I watched a rainbow of fire
divide the darkening millennium.
Was the promise of the first
rainbow fulfilled? No. But from the ruins
a greater dream had been kindled:
unfinished, an ascending fragment.
And I understood
why people burn their diaries.
Who wants to read about yourself
as a victim of passion?
No, something greater — a sunset
rainbow, a covenant of fire
at the end of a thousand years!
My imagination would not let it go.
But the dusk deepened. The rainbow
faded. I looked toward
the fading ocean, and knew at last
what the surf was saying.
It said everything, but mainly
amen, amen, amen.
~ Oriana © 2013
The poem ends with acceptance, which creates a relative security and freedom from overwhelming needs. With acceptance, even a nightmare becomes an interesting experience. Perhaps instead of dreaming of “heaven” we should give thanks for the “difficult ordinary happiness,” as Adrienne Rich puts it. For me that happiness involves continual astonishment at what happens next. Not a boring minute in Oriana’s life! Amazingly enough, it’s true.
ADDENDUM, SEPTEMBER 4, 2015
Need I say that the "greater dream" also got shattered? I had to settle for a more modest level of accomplishment — and for those flashes of great beauty that are perhaps the only grace amid the sorrows and disappointments. Seeing a sunset rainbow is one of those flashes. And that is enough.