Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Hear Charles Bukowski read Born Into This.

Safeway, Boulder Colorado

"Let me say before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By 'they' I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and meaninglessness."

- Thomas Merton, from his essay Rain and the Rhinoceros

For this week, I am sharing:
1. An essay sparked by the quote from Rain and the Rhinoceros.
2. A film about Alice Scheffel.
3. A film from New Orleans.
4. News on the Niger Delta.
5. A photo-essay from New Orleans.
6. Several links related to the oil catastrophe.

The quote above was sent to me by Jim Hartz (friend, longtime meditator and poet-activist; acute observer, synthesizer and devotee of the thought and teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, Thomas Merton, Noam Chomsky and many others). It comprises an axis I find myself situated upon; on one end the gratuitous nature of reality where most of our true pleasures and most of what is good for us is indeed free; on the other end the ever-gushing oil catastrophe, a worldwide sonar igniting rage, accusation and countless one-way streets of political opinion not acted upon, a recurring dream eating from the inside out our inventions of rising standards of living and other delusional happy endings. It is still free, and we are in it.

Bouquet in the home of Jay and Doug,
Portland, Oregon.

Alice Scheffel in 2006, age 89.


The catastrophe of our invented necessity for ever higher standards of living contrasts with the drala principle, which could simply be called the spirit of appreciation. Appreciation fills one with contentment, does not in itself require consuming and stays as part of the makeup of our psyche (or as a positive seed in the alaya vijnana, as Thich Nhat Hanh would say). My mother, Alice Scheffel was a warrior of this kind, someone who understood that life in its gratuitous beauty - as nature - was something to appreciate and serve. She did this in her best moments and often. Although driven to do, as we all are in contemporary culture, she took the time to step out of the frenzy of shopping or vacuuming - and with a sense of humor. She came to know Chögyam Trungp/Lord Mukpo through his photograph and a single conversation she and I had about him a few months before she died. From then on, she felt Lord Mukpo to be present in her life in the same kind of practical and not particularly religious way she felt Christ to be with her. My mom would entirely endorse this teaching:

Give yourself a break. That doesn’t mean to say that you should drive to the closest bar and have lots to drink or go to a movie. Just enjoy the day, your normal existence. Allow yourself to sit in your home or take a drive into the mountains. Park your car somewhere; just sit; just be. It sounds very simplistic, but it has a lot of magic. You begin to pick up on clouds, sunshine and weather, the mountains, your past, your chatter with your grand-mother and your grandfather, your own mother, your own father. You begin to pick up on a lot of things. Just let them pass like the chatter of a brook as it hits the rocks. We have to give ourselves some time to be.
We’ve been clouded by going to school, looking for a job—our lives are cluttered by all sorts of things. Your friends want you to come have a drink with them, which you don’t want to do. Life is crowded with all sorts of garbage. In themselves, those things aren’t garbage, but they’re cumbersome when they get in the way of how to relax, how to be, how to trust, how to be a warrior. We’ve missed so many possibilities for that, but there are so many more possibilities that we can catch. We have to learn to be kinder to ourselves, much more kind. Smile a lot, although nobody is watching you smile. Listen to your own brook, echoing yourself. You can do a good job.
In the sitting practice of meditation, when you begin to be still, hundreds of thousands, millions, and billions of thoughts will go through your mind. But they just pass through, and only the worthy ones leave their fish eggs behind. We have to leave our-selves some time to be. You’re not going to see the Shambhala vision, you’re not even going to survive, by not leaving yourself a minute to be, a minute to smile. If you don’t grant yourself a good time, you’re not going to get any Shambhala wisdom, even if you’re at the top of your class technically speaking. Please, I beg you, please, give yourself a good time.
          Chögyam Trungpa, from The Great Eastern Sun.

Alice Scheffel died at age niney-one of liver cancer. I was her primary care giver during her last five months of life, December 2007 to April 2008. During this time I video-documented my mother's daily life, the things she had to say and her interactions with others. Her letting go was lucid and inspiring - she showed me the way. The footage in this scene was taken as I asked my mother the question, "Do you miss going out into nature?"

Watch video on larger player (recommended).

Alice Scheffel on Nature and Memory from Bill Scheffel on Vimeo.

A short film, Water, Science, Responsibility and Home.

 After I made my first two documentary films - one thirty minutes long, the other sixty - I gained tremendous respect for the colossal amount of time and concentration it takes to edit shot footage into something that can be called a film. I also began to look for an easier way to make a living (very so to speak) and imagined making a series of very short films (phew!) on a single subject that could be seen in the order the viewer chooses (as poems are read).

This nine-minute film below comprises four interviews I shot in New Orleans, approximately four weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and just as the oil was beginning to contact the Louisiana coast. These were random encounters, people I approached on the long walks I too there, mostly in the Ninth Ward. I asked questions about water issues, our relationship to our environment and about the oil catastrophe.  As I edited this group of interviews I realized they could be seen individually or as a continuous ensemble, a semi-realization of my imagined notion of future film-making. Here I am presenting the four together, an ensemble title, Water, Science, Responsibility and Home.

Essential to know about the Niger Delta 
(and Ecuador, and many other places):

 The New York Times: Far From Gulf, a Spill Scourge 5 Decades Old

BODO, Nigeria — Big oil spills are no longer news in this vast, tropical land. The Niger Delta, where the wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.

Perhaps no place on earth has been as battered by oil, experts say, leaving residents here astonished at the nonstop attention paid to the gusher half a world away in the Gulf of Mexico. It was only a few weeks ago, they say, that a burst pipe belonging to Royal Dutch Shell in the mangroves was finally shut after flowing for two months: now nothing living moves in a black-and-brown world once teeming with shrimp and crab... read more.

New Orleans Photo Essay

I ran into a friend, Mike Smith, yesterday. Decades-long manager of the Trident Cafe and Bookstore here in Boulder, Mike reminded me he is a native son of Lafayette, Louisiana and asked me if I had more photographs of New Orleans - a question that launched the following photo-essay.

Times Picayune, May 10, 2010.

One day, during my stay in New Orleans I spread the Times Picayune on my hotel room floor and photographed the front page, May 10th. Louisiana Govenor Bobby Jindal and others are being shown the first sightings of oil on the Louisiana shore.

Garden District, New Orleans.

It was already in the low 90s in May when I was there, but more than one New Orleans resident warned me that August is the month you would do almost anything to be anywhere but here. The living analog of that statement are the old trees of New Orleans (mostly unknown species to me, who grew up among ponderosa pines and Douglas fir) who offer a shade and cooler micro-climate so palpable and necessary that just standing under one is a lesson in global warming and climate change.

Near Paris Ave and Hwy 610.

Ninth Ward.

A city with street names and thus intersections like North Rampart and Piety must have always been the home of poets or at least decent historians (Robert E. Lee Blvd and Paris Ave). Where I live you can't find much cracked and peeling paint or a red door inside a yellow frame. I really don't know why the sight of old walls and decaying architecture makes me so deliriously happy.

Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

These two photographs, with their elements of similarly cracked streets and parallel perspectives, for me represent Lord Mukpo's Dream Time (so to speak), a hunch I had before I took my trip and something bordering conviction when I look back upon it: that going to New Orleans was like going to Cambodia. Katrina and the Khmer Rouge each being initiatory cataclysms, still lingering as defining histories with people wandering around in their aftermath hard at work and somehow warmer, crazier, more real than the rest of us. Each place's future seems disturbingly parallel, too. New Orleans (the Gulf Coast) helpless as the oil increases and increases; Cambodia helpless among powerful neighbors, with its supply of the Mekong River downstream of dams the Chinese are building and the Himalayan glaciers that are melting.

The man below (now I can't even remember his name) worked for a rental company and drove me to and from my hotel during a 48-hour interval. Our time together was warm and humorous. I asked if he had remained in New Orleans during Katrina and he said he had. He had, in fact, spent two days on the roof of his house. "Oh, you were one of them," I said.

He laughed in admitting, "Yep."

Church on St. Bernard Ave.

I walked by many churches in New Orleans, wondering what their congregations and services were like. Most of all I walked by houses. New Orleans is a city of single family houses, many of them small but with surprisingly large yards. Many of the houses are of course empty, abandoned, waiting to be restored or destroyed; the casualties of urban decay, violence, foreclosure or hurricane  Katrina. There is no hesitation in New Orleans to paint houses in bright and saturated color which creates a visual tonic and a seeming, emergent prosperity as these newly painted houses dominate those beside them. These house are like exotic birds, flamingos foraging in a wasteland. The abandoned and destroyed houses are equally compelling, as if their stories are not the singular ones of inhabited homes, but are the stories of every previous occupant - ghost stories - and of a cataclysmic history that emptied them.

Lower Ninth Ward.

Ninth Ward.

Ninth Ward.

St. Bernard Ave.

Lower Ninth Ward.

Annunciation Street.

Habitat for Humanity Crew,
Lower 9th Ward.

Door, Magazine St.

Links to websites with news and information on water issues and the oil catastrophe (With thanks to Jeff Krouk for many of these):

1. This link, through excellent, first-hand writing brings one into the feeling of the birds and those who are observing and treating them. 

2. These links are to crucial and comprehensive sources of news and information on water issues around the globe. 

Tree Hugger: Coastal Habitats Deemed Planet's Most Imperiled Ecosystem

3. These links all related to the Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe.

Ocean currents likely to carry oil along Atlantic coast

BP well disaster stuns hardened oil men

How the ultimate BP Gulf disaster could kill millions





Sunday, June 13, 2010



Today's title The Other in this case refers to a book of lectures by Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, published posthumously in 2008, which explores Kapuscinski's conviction that the most desirable human conduct is to move toward "the other," to directly encounter those who differ from ourselves. An infinite continuum that might begin on the extreme end with the object of our prejudice or hatred but eventually reaches our own doorstep, our wife, husband, daughter or best friend. Ultimately, no one completely agrees with us. 

This "engagement with the other," is an expression of the bodhisattva vow, the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of compassion or "exchanging oneself with other." It struck me that my trip to New Orleans was an opportunity to further explore the fact that although we don't agree, we nevertheless feel the same. As the Tibetans say, "All the beings just want to be happy." Might we all be allies in the face of what matters the most, such as the oil catastrophe?

. . . . . . . 

Drala can be translated as "above conflict"; that the world is not struggling with itself, but in our confused perception we struggle with the world. The drala principle proposes that when we release our "acquired conditioning" we discover the natural intelligence of non-struggle within us, a blossoming state of joy. Acquired conditioning often reveals itself as our internalized "shoulds," all kinds of second thoughts that deflect seeing things as they are.

Eduardo Galiano wrote a poem that gets at this:

The Body

The church says the body is a sin.
Science says the body is a machine.
Advertising says the body is a market.
The body says, I am a fiesta.
. . . . . . . 

Three of my walks in New Orleans took me into the Ninth Ward and the Lower Ninth Ward, the primary neighborhoods that delivered pictures to the world of people left behind, stranded on their roofs in the floods when water driven by hurricane Katrina breached the levees. In the handful of off-the-cuff video interviews I conducted on my walks, my inquiries began with questions such as "How is the oil spill effecting you?" or about water in general, but increasingly I found myself simply wanting to ask people, "What do you want?"

I asked all of these questions of Faith and Perry, two young people I encountered, along with their dog Grimace, on the porch of their house in the  Ninth Ward - as seen in this 5-minute video documentary.

NOTE: If the player below does not work for you,
go directly to Vimeo.
On Vimeo you will also see a LARGER SCREEN.