I have been rereading In Search of the Miraculous, PD Ouspensky’s seminal work on the teachings of GI Gurdjieff, and today I found myself especially drawn to a section in the book where he recounts Gurdjieff’s views about conscience:

Conscience is a state in which a man feels all at once everything that he in general feels, or can feel. And as everyone has within him thousands of contradictory feelings which vary from a deeply hidden realization of his own nothingness and fears of all kinds to the most stupid kind of self-conceit, self-confidence, self-satisfaction, and self-praise, to feel all this together would not only be painful but literally unbearable.

If a man whose entire inner world is composed of contradictions were suddenly to feel all these contradictions simultaneously within himself, if he were to feel all at once that he loves everything he hates and hates everything he loves; that he lies when he tells the truth and that he tells the truth when he lies; and if he could feel the shame and horror of it all, this would be the state which is called ‘conscience.’

While reading this passage, I remembered what I had heard 30 years earlier from someone in the Work (as it is called), who told a group of us drawn to Mr. Gurdjieff’s ideas that we should never believe any of them unless we had verified their truthfulness through our own experiences.

Last Sunday, I was given the opportunity to feel the “shame and horror” of what I am certain was an experience of true conscience, when I had a front-row seat to the theater of my many inner contradictions. I was out to dinner with a kind, solicitous man I had dated a few times, and I very much wanted there to be the possibility of an enduring companionship. We had a good deal in common, I told myself — lonely childhoods that instilled in each of us an abiding need for solitude and self-sufficiency; a deep love of animals, especially dogs; a naive insistence that, above all, people should be honest; and a genuine tenderheartedness towards those brethren among us who are suffering.

As we ate our paella marinara and drank our Blue Moon beer, I listened attentively to him describe a movie he had seen, and gradually I found myself feigning interest in what he had to say. More and more anxious to leave, I was soon taken over by a dreadful irritation in search of release. Unable to escape from the discomfort, I looked inward, with not a little pain, as someone deeply cruel replaced the more tenderhearted one in me and began to launch a (mercifully) silent attack on his clothes, his cologne, his voice, his mannerisms, and on.

Once home, and then throughout the week, I experienced the kind of remorse that I am convinced can come only from those moments in which we are made to stare unflinchingly at the machinations of our disunited selves. The hope is that someone more whole will one day emerge from this container of broken bone and scarlet blood I call “I.”

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You’re breaking up with me question mark

Recently I read that using punctuation in a text might suggest that I am untrustworthy because it shows a lack of spontaneity and sincerity. Although being literate down to the last comma is etched into my DNA, I understand why literacy has become suspect. It appears that ever since electronic contact has all but replaced what was once considered genuine human contact, we have abandoned old-fashioned rules about written communication and have replaced them with new, and confusing, rules for writing intimacy.

Nothing brings home this point about the confusing transition to new relationship rules more poignantly than the Sprint commercial made popular a number of years ago, in which a young man and woman are sitting across from one another in a restaurant booth—both holding their cell phones—when the following takes place:

“I just got a text from you that you’re breaking up with me,” he says, looking up, incredulous, from his phone.

“Don’t worry about that, ” she tells him. “I switched to [the] Sprint $69.99 plan, so I wasn’t charged extra,” after which he receives an alert on his phone and again looks up, aghast, at his soon-to-be ex.

“Okay,” he tells her, “I just got your break-up email.”

“Emails are unlimited, too,” she says, this time with a big smile on her face. “And look,” she adds as she shows him her phone. “I just changed my Facebook status to ‘single.'”

Never mind that she is a sociopath incapable of feeling empathy. What we need to understand is that she is no less a victim, albeit a symbolic one, of our mass alienation from ourselves and from each other than are the more sensitive among us.

When I reflect on the faux intimacy of the twenty-first century relationship, I understand why the rules of written communication need to change. In the throes of a breakup, the rejected partner in the commercial is certainly not in any shape to consider whether he should use a series comma or should put a question mark at the end of his sentence. And taking the time to do so might send the message, figuratively and literally, that he feels less shocked and hurt than he has every right to feel.

Although until now I have resolutely followed the rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage whenever I have sent an email or a text to friends and companions, I feel an emerging, and surprising, discomfort about doing it because on a visceral level I have begun to understand that, in person, one would never scream, “Don’t be an a**hole exclamation point” at one’s partner or whisper, “I want you semicolon do you want me question mark” into an intimate’s ear.


When love leaves her beloved

Waxing crescent moon

 Even love will catch her death

under a cold moon will become

a patch of brown grass buried

beneath an early frost will shiver

into a single dark vine winding

around a splintered trellis will crawl

panting across a desert floor will dry

up to a trickle of water down the

face of a stone mountain will run

frightened through a long hallway will slip

unseen out a side entrance will know

when it is time to turn and pull

the door closed behind her.


Tripping then falling


1. night

In the fever dream I mean to write a love poem,

an ode really, but without any edges,

and begin to think how I can sardine together

tender words you would have wanted to hear:


(as a woman might call to a sailor tossed over the bow)

or try and imagine a blue-black ocean crashing waves

of churning conch pearls onto the brown sand and

burying you knee deep in abalone shell.

2. dawn

Hearing the laughter of a Siren from another dark sea

I look up just as she touches your mouth with a fingertip and

whispers something saucy enough to make you

grab hold her hips and quick swim away from me.

3. day

In the morning dream I awaken

belly down on a bed of cracked earth

and somehow know that our hot-dim world

has been without rain and bright light for years.

Off to the right stands a ramshackle cottage

where we once lived with our young children —

well kept then, our cottage —

with the front window kicked out across its middle and

looking like a row of jagged teeth.

Just inside sits our long table,

now made of red hickory,

where we ate a last meal together, the twins,

as you may recall,

spooning sweet potato pie onto the good plates

while two flickering honey candles dripped wax

on the turkey platter and our kind but unlovely

Charlotte, your dear girl,

quietly carved her first name into my sideboard.

4. and down

At some point I notice the basement door

and am eager to remember what else we left behind

so slowly descend the wooden stairs though

cannot see much of anything and

missing the bottom step altogether

fall forward into the silent wide open.