During a day in New York City, I wind up at the Museum of Natural History, where I’m drawn to the totem poles of the Northwest Indians, the fierce faces staring out unflinchingly, not happy or especially tranquil, but eye to eye with uncertainty, pain, death.

I don’t know anything about totem poles, or the Northwest Indians, but I do know that living with this kind of art in your backyard means living at the heart of things, rooted in cycles of growth and decay, song and stony silence — no TV to get you through the night; good drugs, maybe, but used with ceremonious sanctity, different from slipping into the executive washroom and sticking a hundred dollar bill up your nose.

We have totems, too — the towering steel and glass of the cancer research institute, the hieroglyph of the newspaper front page, the handsome actor dying on the screen. They’re also turned toward uncertainty and pain, but with less immediacy, washed of primitive awe. We don’t like mystery, or difficulty.

Am I different? Do I face the night — or turn instead to the glow of my lover, our starry uncertainty, serious talk about foolish fears. Is it less threatening to fret over “threats” to our relationship than to face the sure threat of death and loss? How much of life is loss, yet why does my own sorrow still surprise me, an unexpected, uninvited guest. Winter already? A friend told me he was going to keep traveling, follow spring. Good luck, Jim. In your car, maybe; in your heart, never.

How do I honor the primitive? Not by imitating it, that’s for sure. Years ago I tried — I moved to the country, gave away nearly everything I owned, lived without heat. But that was the wrong kind of housekeeping, an outer swipe at an inner mess. Chögyam Trungpa said that what we call cosmic consciousness is usually the ego grown to the size of the cosmos. I grew a lot, as they say.

Today I wouldn’t know who to imitate if I wanted to. I’ve met many of my heroes; they turn out to be men and women not too different from me. Ram Dass has jealous rages. Hugh Prather used to file his teeth, to look better. Good. I don’t need heroes, or a perfect master with a golden broom, sweeping my life into the dustpan of higher consciousness.

No, it’s this life and all its incompleteness and sadness I learn from. The words of teachers are less important than sitting still and hearing my own ceaseless chatter, this play of mind making it with itself in the guise of conversation — like a sweet tooth aroused, intent on finishing the cookies, unwilling to stop except to gather energy for another assault on the unspeakable. The rituals of primitive tribes matter less than watching my own rituals: standing at the door to another’s heart, fumbling for words, pretending again I’m a salesman, and love some profit to be earned, pretending she’s someone new, not the same stone dropping endlessly through time, her face a new disguise, her thighs, hair, voice, the way she moves, everything unique to her as old as God to me. And watching myself give what isn’t mine to give, these uprooted parts of me that need the dark earth of unknowing, the absence of light and everything soft and too easily understood. Watching how foolish I am, I become a little wiser. Listening, I hear the drum that was always beating.

— Sy