Category Archives: Kenko

Another Attempt

One of the nicest reviews of my book was in Haibun Today. I sent it there thinking it was a haibun, but the reviewer, who I trust entirely, said no. Since then, I’ve been reading more haibun both in Haibun Today and elsewhere.

I’ve learned haibun present minutely descriptive moments, scenes, or statements. According to Wikipedia, they may “occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space.” All haibun, however, need haiku that communicate, overtly or covertly, an essence of the account.

The four haibun below are new tries. I’m hoping to solicit my reviewer’s opinion on what I have and haven’t accomplished. I’ve included some of my art.


Sometimes memories of crabbing return. The morning sun raised the scent of creosote from the ties of the railroad bridge, and I squatted, tugging—as slowly as I could—the package string. Either the loose skin of the chicken neck wavered like a ghost into view, or the broad green back of my prey materialized from dark. Everyone said they felt crabs chewing, but I guessed. Often, circular rainbows of fat surfaced when just meat arrived. Any hope, and I’d call my sister over with the net. She was swifter, decisive at the right instant. In the wide-bottom bucket nearby, the already captured edged along the walls, claws half-raised against their fellows.

from deep night,

lapping waves, echoes

of passing barges


A recent dream happened in many rooms, each weighted with complicated Persian rugs, ornate burgundy upholstery, blocky tables, and mahogany paneled walls. The lamps offered barely enough light to dislodge shadows. Each room, roughly the same, still seemed different, as if only this stage were suitable for this conversation. We moved from place to place, recalling what we never quite said.

sandalwood and smoke

she whispered another name

to call dawn


My anger comes out in hints, never visible enough to define. I like thinking it’s veiled by smiles.

a twist of wind

spinning and dropped, flattened,

wheels of dust

When people are mad, it feels like the moment just after someone shoves me. Their faces say distance, the stretch of a landscape moving away, but nothing happened. No one budged, though the room seems changed.

Once my mother spoke to me through a door she wouldn’t open for an apology. I heard half her words but understood I’d gone too far, said too much. Time would never settle our struggle entirely.

a blackbird chooses

now to cry—his brown notes

a song for dusk


shattered beer bottle,

afternoon sun, sparks of blindness

salting sight

When sleep eludes me, I think of it as madness I want to charm and trap. Odd but welcome associations of amber and shoes, or rust and old horses, or a gardenia blossom in a bowl and waning tides—any irrationality creeping closer—and I say, “Stay.” If I’m unlucky, sanity reasserts itself, another list unreeling or a new bulb of worry blinking to life. Around the room, points of reflection map depth and dimension. The heater breathes. On a good night, I may hear a voice as if it’s outside my mind and believe it. Then I know sleep summons. I let it. I close my eyes to join.

past midnight

buildings blend into sky,

piles of lost objects


Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Experiments, Haibun, Haiku, Hope, Identity, Insomnia, Kenko, Laments, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Play, Prose Poems, Recollection, Resolutions, Texas, Thoughts, Time, Visual Art, Voice, Writing

Standing in the Way

water-pipeBetween emails, marginal scrawl in books and on compositions, writing here and elsewhere, plus college recommendations demanding attention this fall, I’m producing a torrent of words. Sometimes I’m unsure if I’m the pipe or standing in front of it, meeting its relentless affront.

There’s no valve.

I like words and find I can understand and say little without them. Still I long sometimes for wordlessness, a vacation when I uncover an essay I’d meant to post and forgotten, when a poem surfaces pristine from the swamp of past work, or a letter appears from my sleep whole and otherworldly. Of course that never happens. Sentences demand assembly. They don’t present themselves. They’re summoned. They insist on being new.

People occasionally ask me if I’d like to make a living as a writer, and I think I would. But prose is so insistent, such a bossy presence, I worry I’d wallow in obligation and necessity. The life of a real writer is strange—what if words were everything, not just an urge or visitation but obsession, compulsion as deep as breathing? Perhaps it’s better to slum with words, better to vamp, better to blog.

The writing I like best is haiku. My attention to my subject is minute or distant or abstract and I can shape an aloof impression that’s not quite the thing but mimics its effect. The rest of writing means to clad its subject like polystyrene, hugging close, intending never to let go… though I want only to cast.

I like to let go. My best moments arrive when the narrowest light illuminates a subject. The rest of the time, I’m adjusting, adjusting, adjusting to stand something in the sun. Each movement suggests more manipulation, exploitation, intention. It’s work when it ought to be natural, as natural as speaking or being.

At its best, writing is revelation, the proper thing presenting itself at the proper time. I feel that state when I write haiku, as if I only uncovered what’d been buried. I might write “blank” to fill a syllable and the space instantly fills, as if the solution waited for worrying to pause. Some fate delays… and then is here.

Wanting to do well is hardly a help. When I’m writing something I know important, I stand at the doorway of a sentence or phrase or word for ten minutes. When the task is going right, only being receptive matters. If  the words shoot as from a fire hose, I accept them. They may know what I don’t. They intend to expose what I wouldn’t see without words.

I don’t know if I’ll ever understand “my process,” if “my process” exists at all. But understanding I’m part of what emerges helps me accept what appears.  The torrent has its own direction, its own compulsion, its own being. I’m in it but also watching, wondering at what I see.


Filed under Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Haiku, Hope, Identity, Kenko, Meditations, Thoughts, Voice, Work, Writing

A Lesson in Randomness

The last few days, my wife has been rolling her eyes because, as I reread Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, I chuckle to myself or say, “Whaaaat?” Sometimes I ask to read an essay aloud to her, and she nods indulgently. She liked the story of the man who ate radishes every morning and then, when attackers assailed his house, was protected by two strangers who, after helpfully defeating the invaders, announced they were radishes.

Much of the time, these essays fit the expression, “I guess you had to be there.”

But not always.

Yoshida Kenko (C. 1283-1352) was a former emperor’s advisor who, after a well-connected public life, retired to seclusion as a Buddhist priest. Essays in Idleness is a collection of 243 separate pieces he wrote in his remaining years, published posthumously. He discusses public and private life, ostentation and simplicity, contemplation and action, skill and sincerity, growing old and growing cranky. Some “essays” are two pages and some are two sentences, but none last long enough to turn anyone away. Here’s the whole of #229 to illustrate the book’s style and tone:

They say that a good carver of images always uses a slightly blunt knife. The knife of Myokan did not cut at all easily.

At first these thoughts can seem banal—many are—but if you can take the time to think about them, they usually offer something curious to consider. The carver who uses a slightly blunt knife must have to work a little harder, but perhaps his tool slows him down as well, and who says a task worth doing well should be fast or easy? As Kenko expresses elsewhere, the key to artistry isn’t skill but care. That could be Myokan’s secret… whoever he is. Could that be Kenko’s secret?

Kenko’s work is rife with lost names, and it often recounts stories of foolish priests or unassuming people who unexpectedly spout some pithy and admirable answer, or the opposite, or something between. The 53rd essay describes a well-loved and promising young acolyte who, after drinking at his ordination, puts an iron pot on his head. It isn’t enough to wear it as a hat, so he pulls it over his ears and nose. Only, he can’t get it off again, so the other students walk the acolyte into town where a healer tries to understand what the boy is saying inside his pot. The healer shrugs and says, in effect, “Hey, I wasn’t trained to take iron pots off people’s heads!” So they resign themselves to the boy’s death. Finally someone says, “Suppose he does lose his ears and nose, so far as living goes there is no reason he should not survive.” It takes some tugging, but they get the pot off. His ears and nose also come off. Kenko ends with, “He escaped with his bare life, suffering afterwards for many a long day.”

Sometimes I’m unsure whether to laugh or cry at these stories. I receive limited clues to how Kenko feels—and fewer about how I’m supposed to feel. The boy should not have pulled a pot over his head, that’s plain, but, having made such a stupid momentary decision, should his life be over? Who hasn’t put a figurative iron pot over his or her figurative head? Does Kenko feel for what he himself calls “suffering”?

Many pieces in this collection explain the derivation of words, and others describe the usefulness of developing good handwriting (#35), how much taller head-dresses are these days (#65), the efficacy of certain herbs in treating snakebites (#96), and how a powder made from deer horns shouldn’t be smelled because it contains “A small insect that which enters by the nose and feeds on the brain” (#149). Here’s the entirety of #46:

Near Yangiwara there was a priest known as His Reverence Robbery-by-Violence. This name was given to him because he had several times been the victim of robbers.

Yet, if many of these essays seem to emerge from an inky sea, their wisdom does too. Because Kenko says anything and everything, a reader learns his prejudices, his affections, and, most of all, his voice. When Kenko turns to more serious matters, you hear him as if he has been whispering to you all along. “When in the space of a day, nay, even an hour,” Kenko writes in #188, “a number of tasks present themselves, we should perform that one of them which is even by a little the most profitable.” His advice is simple enough, but, in the next essay, he uses that observation to address the unanticipated urgencies that fill our daily lives and delay our deeper spiritual aspirations. We settle small things, he says, “The thing that was troublesome passes off without difficulty,” but “the thing that should have been easy causes great anxiety.” Here, as elsewhere, he spoke to me.

Reading Kenko teaches me not to ride in carriages with five straps (#64) and to know when the blossoms are prime (#161). It also demonstrates the value of writing playfully, with filters off. The mixture of high and low, mundane and cosmic, idiosyncratic and universal, make his personality and perspective vivid seven centuries later. He lives by what he preaches—give your earnest and sincere self, don’t posture.

In #19, he writes, “I have let my pen run on aimlessly, because a man is ill at ease if he does not say the things he feels,” then adds, “and, after all, this is to be thrown away and not to be seen by others.” As often as I laughed reading Essays in Idleness, I also thought what a loss it would be if Kenko’s expectation of invisibility came to pass.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Buddhism, Essays, Genius, Kenko, Play, Reading, Thoughts, Tributes, Voice, Writing

In Transit

This time of year in Chicago, the day goes gray around four-thirty.  The sun, if there is one, hides behind the buildings, and shadows flow through channeled streets.  If it’s cold, you’ll find no one out but grumpy dog-walkers, hands shoved deep in their pockets, heads turtled into their coat collars, minds willing the business necessary to let them back inside.

I’m usually walking home then.  I listen to my footsteps on the sidewalk, and the rhythm is some comfort.  My necessary business will soon be over too.  This commute is time to survey what awaits me—rereading books to prepare for the next day’s classes, grading papers.  If I’m lucky, I’ve carved time to work in my sketchbook or write something.

Usually not.

Sometimes my thoughts twist like smoke around some event—I’ve lost my temper, or I’ve quarreled with a colleague, or I’ve forgotten to do something important—then my step takes on the tattoo beat of fixation.  I won’t calm myself by walking faster, but the release of energy seems an essential steam valve.  A strange pool of sweat forms in the small of my back when, within my many layers, exertion signals my body’s flight instead of fight.

I’m grateful for space between home and work—if anyone is home before me, they don’t know how grateful they should be.  I like the sound of the heater whooshing to life.  As long as I’m inside, I like the sound of the passing train down the street.  These noises remind me of safety and psychological quiet.  It isn’t even so bad if then I need to play scholar and work.

I’m a homebody.  Sometimes I take my place in a leather chair by the window and watch the evening deepen into dark.  Soon, I’ll see the colored lights of neighbors’ Christmas trees.  Soon, I’ll see our own.

It’s  early winter in Chicago, the start of a long hibernation, a time to thank fate for home and companionship and whatever peace we find in our busy lives.


Filed under Chicago, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, Home Life, Kenko, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Urban Life, Winter, Work

Fun With Numbers

This weekend I’m busy, so I’ve collected and edited 15 thoughts jotted into my notebook over the last few months.  Some are quite random and may be a bit strange, but I chose them for the conversations they seem to have with each other.

I used a random number generator to put them in this order.

For fun, you could REorder them—just set the parameters of the generator to “15 random integers between 1 and 15 with unique values.”

  1. I worry about missing moments of change, not because I’d want to stop them but because I’m afraid of having nothing to remember.
  2. Once I dreamt of a house constructed from lint, and, every time it rained, I reshaped it with bare hands.
  3. I can’t be the only person who thinks numbers have personalities.
  4. In my urban neighborhood, I see the same unacknowledged faces everyday… but I bet I’ve said so before.
  5. Replacing dates of the year with colors might set time free at last.
  6. One of the floodlights in our kitchen emits a nearly inaudible high-pitched tone, and, once I hear it, I begin to think it’s screaming.
  7. My vocabulary is finite—how do I ever reach anything new?  Perhaps I’ve only forgotten what my brain has already said.
  8. What would my neighbors think if I numbered all of the uncollected dog shit on our block?
  9. In a meeting, I began to imagine amusement parks have opposites.  All the gray rides and attractions aimed at tedium and boredom.
  10. The thought of being heard keeps me silent; the thought of silence gives me peace.
  11. Every day I pass ghostly landmarks, memories my mind is too lazy to retrieve fully but which still emit faint feelings.
  12. Of all my senses, smell seems to grow stronger… because what I’ve seen and heard before fades from notice.
  13. I’m sick of the cut and paste conversations patching my life.
  14. What people call metaphors are animals lured from hiding places: we knew they were there and hadn’t seen them.
  15. Some ideas are clay, others dust—you hope for water.

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Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Experiments, Groundhog Day, Home Life, Kenko, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Numbers, Recollection, Thoughts, Urban Life, Words, Work, Writing

After Kenko

Lately, I’ve been reading the work of Yoshida Kenkō (1283?-1350?), a guard to a Japanese emperor. Following the emperor’s death, Kenko (born Urabe Kaneyoshi) turned to a life of contemplation as a Buddhist monk.  During those years, he wrote Tsurezuregusa, which translates as Essays in Idleness or Notes from the Leisure Hours.  This collection of 243 short pieces, published posthumously, includes compositions that might be three sentences or three pages, all discussing the commonplace issues of life.

I encountered them first when Phillip Lopate included them in the “Forbearer” section of The Art of the Personal Essay.  It may be a misnomer to call him a forbearer, as the first essayists to use the term “essay” wouldn’t have known anything about his work; however, his pithy and personal style anticipates the same reflective style discovered in the west much later.  At the same time, however, Kenko’s work is his own.  His homespun wisdom and quiet observations are endearing and enduring because they seem unadorned, unostentatious—qualities less common in western essayists.

At first, I thought I might write about Kenko but decided it might be more fun to admire him by imitating him.  The excerpts below don’t come close to the original—and I can’t help some of me intruding into the pieces I’ve written—but I offer these essays in the spirit of mental exercise and experimentation…


No one who knows you well will think you a risk-taker.  To them, you behave as you behave, and, if they love you, as you ought to behave.  Our greatest risks are in actions we undertake without forethought.

We buy a house not thinking about how the roof might someday leak or how our finances may run low, and we may have to choose how dear that house is.  Then we might consider what chances we took blithely, but before then, no.

Perhaps it’s too hard to look ahead and see all those risks aligned to meet us.  Perhaps it is the way we are, insisting that most of the things we are doing right now must be safe.


A sensible person knows not to criticize another’s heroes.  What can be gained by trying to persuade someone not to revere a beloved figure?  You have little chance of success, but, if you do, what have you done but taken direction from someone’s life and given them greater cause to resent you?


Here is a story of friend I knew in school.  He ran for a minor office, treasurer or secretary of his class, and made a campaign speech quoting wildly and broadly from strange sources.  He thought many of these quotations were funny, and they might have been… on the page.  Yet when he said them in front of an audience expecting responsibility, seriousness, and purpose, his classmates did not seem to know how to respond and met his cleverness with silence.  He fell flat.  The collective effect of his speech was strange.  They thought him strange and didn’t elect him.

In the school year that followed, the student government decided they needed direction and asked the student body for suggestions.  To that purpose, they placed a locked suggestion box in the cafeteria.  So, nearly every day after this box appeared, this failed candidate would finish lunch, pull a pencil from his pocket, and, on a little scrap of paper, jot down a sentence or two, fold it several times, and discreetly drop it in the slot as everyone rushed to class.

His classmates didn’t seem to notice, but if they had, they would have wondered, as I did, what he was writing.  He didn’t hesitate to tell me when I asked: he was offering an piece-by-piece plan to convert our high school to the sort of bumper cars you find at amusement parks.  The stairs would become shoots and inclines.  Halls would have traffic lights.  The classrooms would be outfitted with poles and speakers like those found at drive-ins.  Gym would be stockcar-type racing and, naturally, demolition derby.

The year stretched on, and he began to submit tiny drawings, minimally labeled, as if whoever would be reading them already knew where they fit in the overall plan.

How strange it must have been when the student government finally thought to open that box, and all those scraps of paper tumbled out!  With the fragments out of order, they probably didn’t trouble to piece them together in any way.  Perhaps they thought they were dealing with a madman.

But, some time later, when the principal of the school made an announcement at lunch telling students not to abuse the student government box because, after all, they just wanted to make school life better, I looked over at the failed candidate and, unnoticed by him, I saw his face break into a broad and open smile. I watched him carefully after that, but I never saw him make another suggestion.


With some friends, you only carry on one conversation, so that, even after years of being separated, you drop back into what each of you once said.  That’s the way the mind works, as if time meant nothing to it.  You find a photo beneath a dresser you’re moving, and the people in it are with you again, smiling as vividly as they did then, as they might be at that moment.


Try as we might, we can’t stop thinking how others see us.  The intentions and effects of our words so seldom match, and, just as one person will say a blossom is faint pink and another say it’s more purple than pink, you would struggle to move either to agree.

So, when a friend says to me, as one did the other day, “She doesn’t begin to understand me,” I’m tempted to say, “perhaps she does, just not as you wish.”

It’s rare to understand yourself as others might, because that would mean seeing yourself from outside when the heart of human experience is only having your one mind, and its one, one-way, window of senses into the world.  When we read what we’ve written, intention seems woven into it.  The very fabric of our thoughts seems represented there.  But it might be a great gift to see the true fabric, to discover whether it holds together and fits the world or whether it’s as insubstantial as a ruined spiderweb.

Instead, the fabric we imagine grows stronger and thicker, in our minds, at least.  Experience assures us we understand, and who can really see the actual world through all the layers of surmise we’ve accepted and stopped questioning?

I wonder who of us could handle knowing ourselves as others know us.  Sometimes, when you are riding a bus or passing through a garish hotel lobby or mindlessly staring at shop windows, you catch an unfamiliar reflection.  You recognize you there, but the reflected you is not looking back, and, suddenly, you’re a stranger and stranger than you’ve ever been.  Your eyes keep flitting back, expecting that person to be gone, hoping and not hoping for it.

Everyone likes to talk about how much they dislike the sound of their own voice on an answering machine.  I’ve seen people hold the phone away to avoid listening to their own voice asking for a message.  But I wonder why—if that sound is the sweetest sound in our own heads most of the time—what soul leaves our voices when they enter the world?

We mean to say something clearly and are heard entirely differently.  A desperate sea lives in the gap between what we mean and how we’re understood—one that sometimes seems as vast and airless as space… and as little subject to influence or intention.

Most of us are living out in that space all the time and can’t know it.


To hear an ancient author as if he were a branch finally grown long enough to tap the window or a household pipe that has always been shuddering to life unnoticed—what a strange thing reading is!


Filed under Essays, Kenko, Memory, Teaching, Writing