Guanyin is the goddess of mercy and the physical embodiment of compassion.


The birds we mistook for a ringtone, the larks in the birch beyond our window. Ringtones made the sounds of rain and the swish of sleeves of strangers brushing. Water falls through the head of a tree, hard, deciduous. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for ringtones rioting like spring flowers while malodorous worms munch nematodes and we wait out the rain beneath a thick canopy of leaves.

These boys like to hang out and talk to each other all day long, but it’s never the two of them alone, as their phones are always abuzz and ringing. The one on the right, who uncharacteristically wishes to remain anonymous, gloats after beating Tray in the game of chess twice one Sunday and texts him so—and is calling. What a novel ringtone that would make, the sound of a child gloating mixed with the softer sound of his friend, half shy, gloating counteracted.

What I thought was a ringtone was the sound of my stepping whole-sole on the whole of my eyeglasses. If you haven’t heard by now, it doesn’t matter about the awful past.

What we mistook for a ringtone, the soft-scraping sounds to those brushing their hair out with a plastic brush. Rubbing scalps of enigma. What we thought was a ringtone was a styptic in a bleeding mouth and a source of causeless laughter. This is neither here nor there, but my niece’s ringtone sounds like a flip-book animating snowdrift across a forest floor up to the earliest branches.

All day long travelers arrived from the front to be halted by an impassable river, so stand they on a muddy bank like figures out of a mythical literature. Frozen, drenched, far removed from cell reception, they watch the ferry and the ferryman going back and forth. They yell in vain their long-drawn summonses. One begs not the question, What is the Song of Deborah, but what is its melody, scoreless in Judges? The spiel I was going to give I believe I have forgotten. There’s a forgetfulness in…. I forget where this comes from, but I’ve heard it said that a nuclear winter begins with a regional war fought with conventional weapons.

I read lips, you know. I’m reading yours now, while you explain to Little Boy Arnold the equations he must work out on the dry-erase boards around him. Up the hill from where I stand, a cordoned-off area, ragged hill pine, falls into the ocean. The tearing sounds of collapse are not phones ringing. They say to the boy, “Show your work why don’t you?” His reply: “I’ve done it in my head since the beginning.”

The bodhisattva Guanyin is the one who hears the cries of the world. She listens deeply without judging or reacting while he, who is he, talks prettily about shrubs. All the pretty talk in the world can’t do justice to the long-necked birds and the boats bobbing between kelp beds. Ringtones ring out across this setting. What we thought were ringtones were kids these days using the phrase “Just saying” in their enjoyment of each other.

After two stressful weeks for both of us, we ran away for two days and a night to a yurt in the Salinas Valley. We forgot our phones. The springs in the boxsprings called out coupling rhythms. Trouble seemed not to exist, or not to have followed us, like in these antique sentences from Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven: “The farmers at last lived prosperously and at peace. Their land was rich and easy to work. The fruits of their gardens were the finest produced in central California.”

What we thought was a ringtone was a wildfire. That the population of the world grew exponentially was one cause of such fires. What we thought were ringtones were human herds thinning.

He remembered he had a little pot on him, but it hardly seemed worth it. Every part of the landscape and sky, especially at night with stars multiplying and whining coyotes trotting somewhere in the distance, was like an outward expression of inner life.

It would happen several times that evening before he realized that the mysterious sound nudging him awake was the ice in the glass [on his nightstand] shifting as it melted. In the meantime, in the moonlight with the water slowly collecting, he closed his eyes, and getting this beautiful kind of curve, he took up inventing again.