Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Day, Occupy Wall Street DC

Movements shift the public will - Rinku Sen

I've written again about Occupy Wall Street DC, this time my experiences there on Thanksgiving day - see below.  In the spirit of exploring the word "occupy," the two words "basic goodness," and how individuals can "shift the public will," I have another video clip to share. A seventeen year old Toronto high school student and victim of bullying, Jacques St. Pierre, wrote to Lady Gaga and several other celebrities to ask them to support the movement to end bullying in schools. To St. Pierre's astonishment, he recieved an a-mail from Lady Gaga herself a few days later, as reported in Huffington Post:
"The subject line said 'To Jacques from Lady Gaga,'" he told (CBS new correspondent Melanie) Nagy. "It said 'click on the link below to download the video for your assembly.' So no questions asked, Lady Gaga sent us a video. I watched it, and I started crying. I'm a huge fan. It's kind of embarrassing because I love her so much. I couldn't believe it."
I started to cry, too. Here's a link to the full Huggington Post article and video

.  .  . 

Statue of General James B. McPherson,
McPherson Square, Washington D.C.

Thanksgiving Day, Occupy Wall Street DC
(Down load PDF of article)

I bought $80 worth of roasted chickens at the Peruvian rotisserie and hailed a cab for McPherson Square. The driver approved of what I was doing - donating food to the OWS tent city - and we were both in a good mood on an exquisite sixty-three degree Thanksgiving day, with no wind, a clear sky, and the fallen oak leaves still strong with a muted orange that made the sky all the more blue. I paid him eight dollars including tip for the ride, which meant I was still twelve dollars short of the $100 I told myself I would donate to OWS on this Thanksgiving day. I'd recently spent a hundred dollars or more on so many hotel rooms over so many nights - not to mention the hundreds of dollars over a lifetime on this or that pack of cigarettes, bottles of Côtes Du Rhône, DVD rentals, novels I never finished and clothes I thought I needed - that this was a small sacrifice indeed, as well as a more creative and interesting use of a hundred dollar bill.

At the head of a line of folding utility tables where all the other food that had been donated - everything from turkey to pizza to glazed doughnuts - was being served was a young man who looked like he was in charge of something, at least for the moment. I told him I had five roasted chickens. He asked if they were cut, I said "no" and he escorted me to the kitchen tent, showed me the cutting board, and gave me a knife. After I'd hacked leg from thigh and breast from ribcage, I washed my hands with antiseptic gel from a dispenser bottle, since of course there was no running water, covered the chicken back up with aluminum foil - they wouldn't be needed until later since so many other people had also donated - and left the tent. The young man couldn't think of any more work that need to be done, so I began to mill around and get to know the place a little bit more for the second day in a row.

The first place I went was the library tent. Not surprisingly, it was by far the most orderly, if not serene, nine square yards of McPherson Square (though many of the private tents were also models of organized space usage). A young man named Brian told me the books had all arrived a few at a time, donations that had now filled the tent and were all organized into clearly labeled sections: education, democracy, identity politics, labor issues. As libraries are closing all over the country, in OWS they are springing up inside tents. Maybe this would be one of the best ways to continue the movement; street-side library tents? And what is more potentially transformative and powerfully non-violent than a book?

An older man was inside the library with me, browsing the books in the posture of browsing; shoulders slightly hunched and head cocked to the side in order to read the spine titles. It's a posture of privacy and inquiry; one feels quite safe and comforted inhabiting it, protected from interruption and millimeters away from a book that might change ones life or at least provide the next footsteps in the lifelong educational growth that written language supplies us. That's what the man was looking at, the Language section. His posture reminded me of my father and of myself, men who like(d) to browse bookstore aisles.

Outside of the library tent I ran into the woman who had given me the list of things I might donate to the encampment. She recognized me and smiled immediately. "I brought five roasted chickens," I said. Rene - I learned her name during our conversation - hugged me and kept her arm around me, escorting me in the direction she'd been walking. "I told you I'd be back," I said, "Yep, I see you are." Rene had the same alert presence as she did twenty-four hours ago, and added, "I've been up for forty-eight hours, working ever since the marchers from New York City arrived." She showed me to tents she had procured for them. "They're stuffed in there at night like sausages, but at least they are warm."

Tent door, OWS DC.

The library tent, as well as the choice residential tent locations, face and open onto the circular sidewalk that rings the statue of General James B. McPherson, the only army commander to die in the field of battle during the Civil War. The bronze man and horse tower above the encampment in a synchronistic symbol of sacrifice. I walked down the sidewalks that bisect the park and as I got close to one tent a women emerged and gazing vaguely in my direction - though never directly at me - began to shout, "You come in the direction of this tent and you're charged immediately with attempted rape. I mean it, you're charged with rape and I'm not kidding mother fucker." As they were yesterday, the realities of mental illness, former abuse, and homelessness were represented in every quadrant of the square.

As I walked on, an African American woman holding three chocolate chip cookies approached me and asked for money. As she began to spin the details of her story I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet and gave it to her (now I had donated $108). She increased the dramatic enactment of her story, gave me the chocolate chip cookies, took me by the hand, and started to lead me to the street. It was logical and humane for her to try to get more from me, and when I said the twenty was all I could give she took it well and insisted that I eat all three cookies myself.

I ran into the librarian again who told me his name was Phil. He was twenty-four, exactly three years younger than my own son, and I could have easily guessed his age. A tall, muscular, and street-worn black man of my age approached us and reached with both hands into the pockets of his coat, pulled out something sticky and orange - a kind of grain, pumpkin, squash; I had no idea - and intermittently stuffed the food into his mouth, which spilled out again as he spoke to us. He zeroed in on me. I told him where I was from and where I had lived. It was hard to understand him, but he kept saying something about my age, "Born in the early 1950's" he said a number of times - certainly correct about my age and making me feel like that fact was the only one I know about my existence. There's few faster ways to have self-credentials rattled than to carry on a conversation with someone who is mentally ill. 

I was taken back to the 1980s, after then-California-governor Ronald Reagan had closed the state mental institutions which responded by dumping their populations onto the street. At the Berkeley meditation center, which was so much a part of my life then, there always seemed to be a mentally ill person in the building - since they knew it was one that might accommodate them - and I often navigated the boundary between seeing if the person would behave reasonably, and therefore be allowed to stay in the room while we meditated or held a class, or if they had to be asked to leave. In those moments I always felt tested. Was my compassion real or a sham? To what degree was this person telling me the truth or hustling me? And where is the moral boundary between giving someone your time and telling them you have to go?

As always in any moment of reality - not to mention any social configuration - there are many stories that could be told about OWS DC. I'm writing about the intersection between homelessness and the OWS movement - the very visceral reality of it - because this is the story that has most prominently come my way, and through it I am understanding something. Apropos to this understanding, I received an e-mail from a friend in response to the blog I wrote yesterday:
Your piece on the encampment touches many of the feelings and thoughts I've been having about it here in Portland.  The camp was taken down a week ago now, but as in DC, the camp had become a gathering of much of the city's homeless population after the initial momentum began to dwindle. One protester returned to his tent to sleep and was jabbed by a used needle someone had left behind - the media feasted on that incident.
My teacher once said, "Luxury is experiencing reality." Living here at McPherson Square is a bit more luxury than I'm willing to experience, but I think this is clearly the reality he was talking about. Closer to the elements and not shielded from pain. It makes perfect sense that homeless people would move in - just as they came to the Berkeley meditation center. Here they are not shunned and were in fact invited (as my friend told me they were in Portland). 

That the homeless population might overpower the abilities of the OWS demonstrators - just as the cold might - is completely natural. Homelessness is part of a soup whose recipe includes most of the issues the protesters are aware of and protesting: PTSD from childhood abuse, alcohol and drug addiction in the family, napalm dropped in the Vietnam War, roadside bombs in Iraq, vets turned out on the street, sub-prime loans made in the poorest neighborhoods with contracts signed by machines, cancer caused from living near Superfund sites, and families without any medical insurance. Pain and neglect rolls downhill and OWS DC is a downhill collection site. A horrific and beautiful campground that I feel privileged to have entered and a lot happier for having done do. 

Just as there were many stories I could tell about the ninety-minutes I spent at McPherson Square on Thanksgiving day, 2011, there were many reasons why I had to come. The central reason I had to come... is that I just knew I had to come. That feeling had struck me when I was still in Turkey, when I first read about the OWS encampment in NYC. It wasn't until later in the day - at 2:28 AM as a matter of fact, when I was lying in bed wide awake - that it struck me that something had been "transmitted" to me by coming, and that I had entered OWS. It was a good feeling. I no longer felt outside of something I had admired and identified with, but inside it. And I knew that this feeling was the point, the message of that word "occupy," that it means - to quote Ram Dass from 1970 - "be here now." It means be here now with a 2011 twist, that we can be here now with a lot of other people, without any one particular agenda, but with an increased commitment to push and nudge global society in a more positive direction. It means to move, to the degree one can and is willing, outside of the comfort zone and into the chaos. It's not about seeking utopia, aggrandizing oneself, or being hopelessly idealistic, and therefore naive. It's about coming out of the closet.

Inside the library tent, OWS DC.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Voyage to (Occupy Wall Street) Washington D.C.

 OWS encampment, Washington, D.C. 

My blog this week is about my journey to Washington D.C. and encounter with the Occupy Wall Street movement. As I was writing this I watched an incredible interview on Democracy Now about Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle. Sonia and Peter were both convicted of murdering police officers - she in the U.S., Peter in Ireland - and sentenced to death. After years on death row, their convictions were overturned, they were exonerated and released from prison... and many years later met and married each other! What is equally remarkable is that they both credited surviving their ordeal, including years in solitary confinement, through yoga and meditation. Their story is the finest Thanksgiving story for the rest of us that I could imagine



I took the Long Island Railroad into New York City. Just north of the Jamaica Queens stop, the train passed a refuse collection center. Men were hauling wet cardboard boxes to the side, separating recyclables from the other masses of garbage, and the seagulls swooped and circled overhead, keen with enthusiasm for the sea of rotting life below them. After all the houses and lawns and apartment buildings we'd passed, seeing the dump was like viewing a body opened for stomach surgery - an eight-second glimpse through the train window into what else is going on.

The refuse center suddenly brought me back to the Sunday market in Arad, where I could have bought a live peacock or rabbit and taken it with me on the train. But this was New York state, not Romania, and the only animal I could take on this train would be a seeing-eye dog. It was in Romania that I decided to return to the United States in time to support the group of OWS protesters who were marching from NYC to Washington DC. Now I was in the final stages of my plan, on a train to Penn Station where I would transfer to Amtrak and arrive in DC later in the day. Tomorrow the protesters would march on the capital and so would I. Or so I thought.

Graffiti, Budapest.

I arrived at my friend Lisa's apartment and tried to update my information about the marchers. It had been hard to find much information about them on the internet. Finally I found their blog, but even that said little about where they would be the next day.


Still without specific information on the OWS marchers, Lisa and I decided to take the Metro to the Capitol. "They're bound to show up there sooner or later," I said. Before leaving the house I got an e-mail from a friend who I had told about my plans. He was enthused and supportive about them, but disclosed "I find it difficult to commit to one movement or another. Everything is changing and so do the movements and the conditions." That view, along with so many others, is also part of my own. Within the great Everything-Is-Changing how can we not each be versions of Walt Whitman contradicting ourselves? Yet as another poet-I-love wrote, it is impossible not to have a politics:

There is no way out of the spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher

you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making yr world
from Rant by Diane Di Prima

The Capitol building was luminous from last night's pouring rain and this morning's sunlight, filtered by clouds but bright enough to electrify all of its white, its columns, its dome and the statue Freedom above it, the 15,000 pound cast bronze sculpture of woman holding a sword and draped in an Indian blanket, whose face the looks decidedly kind, warm, and at peace with herself. A drala of the feminine principle if there ever was one, standing above a legislative building with a military budget almost as large as all the other countries of the planet combined.

Beyond the luminosity the place was virtually deserted. The occasional clusters of tourists were swallowed by the immensity of the place, the pigeons were few, and there wasn't a protest sign in sight. Nope, the marchers clearly weren't here yet, but we had a feeling they never would be. We stopped to ask one of the Capitol policeman about the OWS march that we'd heard was converging on the Capitol. He scanned the day's schedule but there was nothing on it about any protest or political event.

Ram with cornucopia, Sam Rayburn House Office Building

McPherson Square

Lisa knew that the OWS Washington DC tent city was located at McPherson Square, so that is where we went next, and where my own experience of OWS crossed over from virtual to visceral, where my story-line went from mediated and imagined to concrete--grass and a refugee camp of tents, tarps, and chaos, a sampling of particularity at 11:17 AM on the day before Thanksgiving.

Apart from of the statue of the Union general and namesake of the square, I discerned no particular center, central theme, or population. The dozens and dozens of tents and semi-tents seemed unoccupied at the moment and the majority of the people standing around were African American men; many of them homeless, some Vietnam era, some young, some mentally ill. One black man was given wide birth by the passers-by as he repeated the same series of gyrations and muscle-flexing, a dance-schizophrenia of working-something-out. The pigeons seemed to have gotten used to him and flocked at the birdseed near his feet.

Lisa and I walked through the encampment. I was not sure what she was feeling (I didn't really know what I felt until the middle of the night). I've had so many experiences in the last year of going to a new town, a new country, handing someone my passport, crossing the membrane from other to gradual inclusion. Now I was not just crossing into McPherson Square, but into another country. My trepidation, solidarity, and naïveté had to cross. My sense of being an ancestor to the movement but also an interloper and lightweight had to cross. I was keen to photograph and video tape what I was about to cross into and so my voyeur, paparazzi, and cliché-monger had to cross along with my Canon cameras and nascent memories that I would later write about.

 In those first moments I felt understanding for the David Brooks and the Newt Gingrich-ones, those who dismissed, scorned or mocked these protesters, people who would never see these encampments for themselves. But this place was also a stretch for the middle class, the swing voter, and just about anyone one else who lives a semi-comfortable life. Even for a so-called progressive or liberal, being here was different than honking in solidarity from your Volvo or sending a supportive e-mail. 

McPherson Square was thick in dreadlocks, hand-painted signs, wheelchairs and cigarette smoking. It was thin on infrastructure; mangy, wet, and deteriorating tarps, no toilets, no running water. It was thick with passers-through; dog-walkers, supporters, the curious, TV crews, gang-bangers and gang-banger look alikes. It was thin on defense against the cold, money, food and electricity (there were many solar panels). It was thick in stories, thick with the human sophistication that comes from interacting on the spot, on the street, with just about anybody in a place where just about anything could happen.

The iconic and necessary elements of these tent-cities were easy to find: the library tent, the first-aid tent, the mess tent. I reached the information tent and approached a multitasking African American woman in her late thirties who summarily asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to help. "We need blankets, socks, thermal underwear - if you have that kind of money - and food donations," she said, wrote these out on a yellow sticky-pad note and handed it to me. I asked if I could help on Thanksgiving and she said, "Of course. You can bring food and you can work in our kitchen." Her multi-tasking was minute-by-minute triage and she was good at it; assessing my sincerity, welcoming me without fooling herself that I'd come back with anything on the list, snapping at an approaching TV news crew that she didn't want to be photographed. You could put her in charge of anything, I thought, and she'd be good at it.

.  .  .

When Lisa and I left McPherson Park we walked west on K Street. We went from virtual refugee camp to Hilton Hotel and Capital City Club & Spa. We went from pizza on damp cardboard to steak and lobster and white tablecloths, from donation buckets to Bank of America ATMs. The encampment was no more than a vulnerable, fleeting moment in time. It could be decimated overnight by a 2:00 AM police raid or simply by a change of heart in the protesters. I suddenly felt a different ninety-nine percent versus one-percent equation. The encampment was representing, consciously and unconsciously and through its diverse demographics, 99% of the realities we find difficult to face, and the rest of K Street was expending 99% of its energy pretending these realities were otherwise.

 Sign, OWS Washington DC

Non-Violence Works

Did you ever see Dr. Martin Luther King yelling at a police officer or kicking a car?

Did you ever see Gandhi deface a statue?

Did breaking windows or burning cars stop the IMF or World Trade Organizaton?

Disorganized minds cannot organize anything. Do you think the government is scared of a stoned protester?

Intoxication, fighting police and vandalism is how you protest a bad soccer referee. Should we follow the soccer hooligans or Mahatma Gandhi?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Note: This is a story about six days I spent in Romania this month. The echo of my time there is like the one from Cambodia; being in a country where the pace remains more connected to the earth-rhythm than elsewhere, ostensibly because the country is still poor. For me, the rhythm is a mirror showing what contemporary life has lost -  and what the people in Romania are in the process of loosing - but it is also about the different kind of future we will have when we turn back toward that more earthly, sustainable rhythm. Bill

.  .  .


I’d found a $128 flight from Istanbul to Bucharest and sensed this was the route to begin my journey back to the U.S. In the late afternoon on October 31st I found myself on a bus from the Bucharest Airport to the hotel where I'd made a reservation, chosen once again through the internet. Only later did I realize I had arrived in Romania on Halloween.

The passengers on the bus I turned to for directions were diligently kind, which formed my first impression of Romania. The woman behind me deliberated at great length just where I should get off for Magheru 8-10, the address of my hotel, and when she asked the man across the aisle for his advice, he knew with certainty and just about took my hand and led me off the bus when it came to my stop.

The Ambassador Hotel displayed the flags of the European Union, its entrance was embedded between two sex shops - just as one internet review claimed it would be - and the lobby itself was a chaos of pillars, worn out sofas and florescent lighting. I handed over my passport and once I'd established a bit of rapport with the desk clerk asked him if I could have a room had a good view. He retrieved the key he was about to give me and handed me another. Room #314 was at the end of a hallway and was large, with two balcony windows and a bathtub so enormous it  suggested the disquiet of accidental drowning. The walls seemed to be yellow, painted very long ago and lit by weak energy saving light bulbs. Except for a rotary-dial telephone, the room seemed it had been left unchanged for decades and I imagined I could have been a minor Politburo authority just arrived from Moscow. Across the street was an immense Communist-era apartment building, its concrete peeling apart and enduring at the same time.

I turned on the  tap and eventually the tub did fill and I took a bath, the hot water bringing my nervous system back to earth. Armed with directions from the desk clerk I set out for dinner and a walk of ten or twelve blocks to get to where the restaurants would be. What Bucharest would look like in the day was largely obscured in the dark and instead consisted of headlights, the sound of traffic and the streetlamps lighting the grey surfaces of sidewalks, buildings and asphalt, a kind of contemporary anywhere. Eventually I had the good fortune to find a small restaurant and a kind waiter, a man who spoke enough English that we could eventually even exchange irony over the size the dinner (large). My broccoli soup came in a deep tureen and was so good I came back the next night and had it again.

The soup, the spaghetti carbonara and two glasses of good red wine erased everything I’d been missing after three months of eating nothing but Turkish food and I left the restaurant with a sated and gratified well-being. I was walking down a mostly deserted street when an elderly woman approached me from the opposite direction and began speaking to me in Romanian. I knew she was asking for money, but her demeanor and dress - as if she'd come from the office - belied this. When I spoke the woman switched to English and began to explain to me the short-form of her story. She had worked her adult life in some ministry, spoke five languages and now she was retired, her pension had been cut and food prices were rising. She had no family and no other way to survive but to beg to make up the shortfall. We spoke for some time and I gave her 10 lei (about three dollars) – later I wished I’d given here 50. She told me her name was Ellen and thanked me profusely. “No, I thank you,” I said and meant it. Affection flowed between us in a kind of shock that we were now parting. I thought about Ellen for a long time. I wondered if I would be in her shoes one day, or who among my friends might be.

Inner courtyard. Timisoara, Romania.


When I arrived in Timisoara I tried to avoid, as I always do, taking a taxi. Not just because I would rather take a bus or metro and thus find my own way to my hotel, but because I dislike getting ripped off by taxis drivers and one is never more a sitting duck than when one has just arrived in a country and doesn’t even know the foreign exchange value of its currency. I bought a ticket for the bus and waited at the stop as the small crowd in the small airport gradually emptied and left me with no idea at all when the next bus would arrive. Finally a seeming taxi-driver approached me and I surrendered to what seemed to be the better part of common sense.

As we got into his grey BWM sedan I realized he wasn’t an official taxi driver at all and I was engaged in a form of transportation not recommended by one’s embassy. The steering wheel air bag had been removed, leaving an unsettling cavity in it’s place. I was suddenly regretting my suitcase was locked in the trunk. Even before we were out of the parking lot I realized the driver was not a criminal but quite kind, reasonably fair and was gradually able to answer my question about train travel, though we had not a single word in common, that there were no trains from Timisoara to Budapest. For that I’d have to go to Arad. I wondered if I was closer or farther from my destination – my return to the U.S. It is after wondering such things that I realize, sometimes with a sinking feeling, sometimes with almost an elation, that I don't exactly have a destination. 

.  .  .

Hotel Delpack was the first hotel on my trip in which I could see chickens from my window. The hotel was a modern, three-story cube in an otherwise rural neighborhood of one-story houses and a two square-block cemetery. Besides the chickens I encountered an even more welcome sight that first morning: crows. A large flock of them circled the city, moving cavalierly in and out of various formations then scattering into their own temporary destinies.

I spent two nights in room #211, in numerology a four. I decided to find its symbolic meaning through the internet: fours represent stability, calmness, home; the four directions and the four seasons. On my first night it seemed to work that way. I sat in meditation before dinner and I’d never felt the forty-five minute transformation to be any greater. To simply sit, let ones thoughts scatter. Like the crows did. That particular sense of well-being-for-no-reason arrived and carried me well into the next day.

Timisoara is the Tahrir Square of late 20th Century Romanian history. The revolution that overthrew the twenty-eight year dictatorship to Nicolae Ceaușescu and the even longer reign of communism began here and then spread to Bucharest. Since then, democracy and so-called free enterprise have transformed the country and the twenty to thirty-somethings one sees on the street would have no more memory of the Communist ear than I do of the Eisenhower presidency. For those of my generation, growing up in Romania would be the polar opposite of growing up in California. Instead of free education and the Beach Boys followed by the Jefferson Airplane one had farm collectivization, forced-labor camps and secret police. It is thought one of every four Romanians became an informer.

My experiences in Timisoara revealed very little of its history per se. I didn't visit museums or read guidebooks, but instead simply wandered in the general direction of the central city. Instead of learning of Romania's cataclysms in WWII - the fascist Iron Guard, the eventual alignment with Nazi Germany, the campaigns against the Soviet Union and the deportation and murder of its Jews - during the day, I studied them on the internet in the evening. In the day I wandered the streets and saw a veritable Louvre of peeling paint and exposed bricks. The layers of history as visual texture. I came across a wall that displayed all of this, plus a defunct pay telephone - a scene that was a combination of Marcel Duchamp and musuem of technology, the telephone as useless as a phonograph without any records in the room.

The chickens I'd seen reminded me of a quote from Milan Kundera, who once wrote that human goodness "can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power.... 
Mankind’s true moral test (which lies deeply buried from view) consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: the animals. And in this respect, mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.
I felt this way even about the telephone - the unmerciful development of our technology just to go ever faster more conveniently - much less the chickens in the yard of my hotel. Like most people, I've eaten so many chickens I could never calculate the amount (currently the world population of chickens on any given day is over twenty-four billion). It is for that reason they have become a totem. They ask so little, feeding on garbage and living traditionally in our yards with little other demand than the rooster's need to crow, yet giving us so much through their eggs and their life. If only they could have a decent life, the one they've always had, instead of being stockpiled, just as pigs are, in cages and grown like hydroponic lettuce or a silicon chip. Just seeing chickens rooting around in the dirt is enough to cheer me and give me hope for our collective future. 
.  .  .

On my third day in Timisoara, the day of my departure, my state of mind was quite different than the day before. I felt anxiety. Perhaps only because I was leaving this home and had no idea what the next one, the next hotel, would be like. But when I went to meditate the anxiety spoke to me, told me its subject – and in that moment changed. To sadness. I began to feel the sadness was about Romania. Was it something collective I’d walked into (just as I walked into something collective in Cambodia) and was now feeling? The moment told me not to avoid it.

Historic town square, Timisoara.


After two days in Timisoara I found myself on a train to Arad and my first chance to see the countryside of Romania. Early November at 4:00 PM, the sun low; farmland harvested and now picked at by crows and blackbirds, stubble burning in untended fires, late model tractors and small towns huddled around a central church whose steeple penetrates the sky and dominates the horizon. 

I had missed my train and had to wait two hours for the next one and now I had almost missed my stop for Arad. Assumptions are usually wrong and if followed usually lead to great or smaller misfortunes. I’d assumed my departure train was late but I was reading the sign for arrivals. I assumed I wasn’t yet in Arad since most of the passengers weren’t departing the train. Fortunately, I asked someone at the last minute, who said, Yes, Arad!”

When I got off the train at Arad it came with the same kind of thud as my suitcase produced hitting the floor. Suddenly, in this small and derelict train terminal I felt as far from home as I ever had in my life - not to mention I don’t currently have a home. I wasn’t ripped off by my taxi driver but the sight of my hotel gave me a second sinking feeling. The Xo Residence was as bland as a Motel Six and looked eerily out of place and slightly elicit on a street of small houses and boarded up shops. Everything pivoted when I walked through the door and was greeting by a young woman with shaved eyebrows and a low cut sweater. She helped me in every way, from calling to find when the trains left for Budapest to assuring me I had a room with a good window, but mostly by her smile and kindness. She took me to room #1.

There is not much you can do to make a hotel room home other than to accept it, and after that feeling at home often comes quickly. Last summer I spent a few days in a Denver hotel room with the number 2319. During that time I had the experience that we never go anywhere. It was an on and off again phenomenological truth with me for those few days, something more than the punitive cliche that we never get away from ourselves, but instead a feeling of continuous homecoming. I felt that way as soon as I locked the door behind me in room #1. It didn’t hurt that the WiFi worked and that there were plenty of chickens in the neighbor’s courtyard. 

I didn't know it, but one more event was about to cheer me even further. I had began my evening walk and search for a place to eat dinner and had reached Boulevard Revolutiei where the restaurants supposed were  - though I found only a monstrously large MacDonald's, a Turkish döner hole-in-the-wall and a handful of bars that also served food. As I made my way down the street, suddenly I saw a number of young women dressed in white gowns and looking like they had come from a wedding - though this was Friday night. As I got closer I saw they had wings attached to their gowns, were handing out flyers. The first of these costumed angels I reached immediately offered to hug me. Was my journey from abjectness at the train terminal to about-to-be-hugged by a beautiful angel a joke from the dralas, a set up to amuse them?
.  .  .

I had dinner two nights in a row at Pomo D’Ora, an Italian restaurant I had found  and immediately chose over the McDonalds and döner joint. I sat at the same table each night, drank the same wine (Romanian, from a box. It was good.) and had the same waitress. On the second night I learned her name: Florina. She, too, had shaved eyebrows. Florina was married and in her late twenties and told me she was born and raised in a village about 150 kilometers from Arad, a village by the name of Avram-Iancu. This most musical five syllable name, with its consonants enclosed in vowels, is also the name of a famous Romanian revolutionary of the 19th Century. I learned this when I asked Florina what her village was known for.

I also asked Florina how she liked living in Arad. She liked it OK, but not like her village. When she spoke about Avram-Inacu, that’s when her eyes lit up. Florina had grown up in a village whose economy was based on raising pigs and growing vegetables. It was the warmth and familiarity of the community there that she missed. “Of course I have lots of friend here in Arad,” she said, “but it’s not the same.” Florina grew up in a village that raised pigs yet she could easily have worked in any restaurant in the world. She moved gracefully, was at ease when our eyes met. She was naturally warm and yet reserved in just the right way; you felt she wouldn’t lose track or your order or anyone's, it was all one piece and Florina was as much of a dancer as waitress. Florina didn’t know how good, how capable she was. Though she did know the melancholy of being displaced from the town of her cheerful youth and the earth that sustained it.

During the meal I went to Avram-Iancu myself in some small way. I was raised in a town that was only thirteen thousand people. It was a town of gamboling casinos, ski lifts and motels rather than pig pens and carrot patches but I, too, lived in a world of seeming stability. Doctor Whitely gave me me antibiotics when my throat was sore in kindergarten just as he did when I was a freshman in high school. And above all, I had nature, all that I wanted of it. Creeks, pinecones, secret paths only I knew about. Florina must have had the same.

. . .

On the morning of my last day in Arad I had time to take a walk before leaving for the train station. I passed the drain pipe that had been lit by the sun when I first saw it and radiated the inner, compelling vitality the moment had given it. When I saw it last night it was dark, a different object entirely. I was different too (could the drainpipe know?). I walked all the way to Boulevard Revolutiei again, found a good bakery and bought provisions for the train. On the way home I came across the large semi-outdoor market that I had encountered the day before. But today - Sunday - it was also a livestock market. Living geese, ducks, rabbits, peacocks and, of course, chickens everywhere. It was a scene of unregulated animal well-being - at least before the slaughter - and human beings enjoying the animals, the barter, each other and the morning sun. 

My time in Romania had come into symmetry with myself and no guide book could have taken taken me here. There wasn't a cash register or bar code in sight. Only cages and men with great knowledge of the content of the cages beside them. Neither peacock or person seemed to be going anywhere, though any sale could part them. It is an accepted fact that people often look like their dogs but I'd never seen a gentleman who looked like his rabbit. Lit by the sun, the man squinted with the same expression as the rabbit, while the rabbit sat as impassively as the man.

At the station I bought a second class ticket from Arad to Budapest for thirty-three, U.S. It wasn't until we were in Hungary that I realized my train had virtually limped out of Romania. I could see we were going slow, but only when the train speed almost doubled after it picket up passengers at the Hungarian border did I realize how slow. Perhaps this was a homage to the difference between Romania and Hungary, how much more "developed" the latter country is. Hard to believe it was the same train. And suddenly everyone on it looked as different from Romanians as the Romanians do from the Turkish, perhaps even more so. It was a shock to be in a different country having just gotten barely used to the one I was in. On the way to Budapest we passed through farmlands and small towns, just like in Romania, but everything looked more prosperous and maintained. Thank God I could still see plenty of chickens running around.

Market, Arad.

The rewards of aimless wandering: I encounterd the angels who
hugged me on Friday night again the next day. Arad, Romania.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I've spent over a month without posting a blog, an indication of my state of mind and the journey of my experience. The intangible qualities that kept me sometimes in rapt inspiration ceased; as when a straw empties the liquid in a drink, the end comes suddenly and the new emptiness-of-ability-to-write takes some getting used to. During this time I've traveled from Turkey to Romania and finally Budapest, where I am now, but my outer reality became as much about the internet footage and related stories I read about Occupy Wall Street and related events as it was about Istanbul or Bucharest and I began to feel a visceral connection to these occupations. This is something that mirrored my inner journey, one that wore away more of what I had known. Now I have my return ticket to the U.S. and I am looking forward to arriving in New York City, exchanging the role of wanderer (or crazy stranger) with that of citizen.

Among other things I've gestated during this time is an expansion of my blog (and website), in that I am beginning a request for submission of articles on dralas and the drala principle. I've had one such article for some time and it's author, Patricia Friedson has kindly giving me permission to share it. This is a most genuine writing about drala and I'm sure it will move you. Please consider writing something of your own and sending it to me. 

It seems to me the organizations and protests that are occurring all over the world are rooted in something that is expressed in the essay below. It is a political consciousness that is emerging, put also a poetic one; perhaps that is why the protests are not oriented to one side or party or issue alone, but are instead an expression of wanting to reclaim something that has been lost, that is being lost, is almost becoming irredeemably lost - qualities of humanity and the environmental integrity of our planet earth.

.  .  .
We may have been interested in our world when we were little children, but then we were taught how to handle it by our parents who had already developed a system to deal with the world and to shield themselves from it at the same time. As we accepted that system, we lost contact with the freshness and curiosity of experience. - Chögyam Trungpa.

The Good Something
by Patricia Friedson

Dear Bill -
Thank you for your website.  And thank you especially for the part about dralas. 

I had never heard the term drala until a few days ago, when I was researching Buddhism on the net, and came across the poem that starts "Born a monk ..." on a different website.

Then I started googling dralas, and so thankfully came to your site.

Reading the excerpt from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche made me remember childhood.  I was a fairly unsupervised kid, and spent a lot of time rambling around in nature just kind of "being with" things; a tree, a particular place where moss grew, the neighbor's dog, or lying on an apartment house roof, looking up through the clotheslines and windy laundry at the blue sky and moving clouds.  There were always clothespins that had been dropped or fallen off the line.  Some of them were made of colored plastic, deep translucent colors like stained glass.  I remember a moment, lying on that roof, on a windy day
 of deep blue sky and fluffy white sailing ship clouds.  I was lying on the roof, holding a red clothespin up to the light.  Its color was amazing; like wine or pomegranate or cherry, gleaming with deep, rich light. 

It was a moment when everything "came together" - the sky, the wind, being up high, the sound of my mom humming as she hung up laundry a few feet away, the wonderful color of the red clothespin, and the marvel that it was colored, yet clear; colored light came through it - and also some very tall pines or cedars that grew next to the apartment building, so that their treetops were right along part of the roof,
 and the wind rustled and sighed through them. Somehow in that moment, it all came together.  It felt like "something" good and kind came out of the tree tops, and sat near me.  Because the moment was right somehow.

Now I realize that childhood was full of moments like that.  Often it was nature that I was "being with," but sometimes it was a poem, or a piece of music; a Scottish folk song or a Mozart Rondo, or a photograph of a person's face in National Geographic, somehow it was a deep "being with" the "is-ness" of things.  In a deep, wordless way that seemed to lead to the mystery of being alive at all.  That made a deep connection, with people, with nature, colors, sounds, sorrows, joys, and with Something Invisible, some Good, Sweet thing that seemed always to be there at those times.  I thought of it as God, but not at all like going to church.  At least, not the services.  But sometimes, in the quiet of an empty church, in the stillness with candles flickering in colored glass holders and the scent of incense and the kind of sad feeling in the air of many prayers lingering there, then sometimes it felt like the Good Something was there, a sweetness, a gentleness, a cleanness, that I thought could see me, could see everyone, though we could not see it.

It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to talk to that presence. Or presences.  Because it had different flavors, different feelings, but it always seemed at heart the same.  Sometimes it made me want to draw pictures or write poems, to express it somehow.  Other times it was just about being with it, for as long as it stayed.  Sometimes I would wake up late at night, and it would feel like Something Good was there, and I would get up and sit on the stairs, trying to stay awake, to be with it.  I remember one time it was a winter night, and it all seemed so important, the cold, the snow, the night sky and the crystal clarity of stars, it just was what it was, the winter nightness of a winter night, yet with that was Something, a longing, a mystery, a goodness.  

As I became a teen-ager, these experiences went away.  I still loved life, poetry, music; I traveled and experienced many religions.  But except for rare moments, not with the purity of childhood.  

Now I am 61.  And reading about the dralas made these childhood memories come flooding back.  Are these memories at all on the right track? Is it part of it, a place to start in understanding Dralas?  

Whatever the Dralas are, they seem so needed, it is something the world needs so much.  I don't understand it, I don't know what I am doing, but I very much want to help if I can.

Thank you for any help you can give me about this, and thank you for putting Dralas on the net.  When I read about them, it was the first time in a long time that I felt not so alone, somewhere deep in myself. Although I am very fortunate, with family, friends, students, neighbors, animals, a lot of good company.  But reading about the Dralas was like hearing the language of one's homeland spoken, for the first time in a long, long time.

Gratefully, Wishing You all the best, 


.  .  .

Arad, Romania

.  .  .

THE HAND OF GOD - video interview with Tom Pathe

Almost three years ago, I film-interviewed my dear friend Tom Pathe. I recently came across this video again and realized I should share it. I’ve titled it The Hand of God to reinforce the journey of freedom that Tom has been on, that the Buddhist path is, and that the drala principle epitomizes. Tom is an early student of Chogyam Trungpa-Lord Mukpo and has been a rolfer nearly as long. Tom has not hesitated to allow the teachings not just of Lord Mukpo, but two indigenous traditions he studied within, to guide and become him. If you have a human body this video interview will be of interest, much less if you’ve ever received or given bodywork. Tom has been continuously plummeting the cataract of discovery of our “inner body.” May you follow carefully the eight minutes of this talk. It’s about gravity, man.