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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 12, Number 3, September 2018

Bill Gottlieb's Commentary on Sonam Chhoki’s "Everything and Nothing"

I was moved by Sonam Chhoki’s "Everything and Nothing"—and, of course, immediately wondered and worried if Sonam herself (editor-in-chief and co-haibun editor of Cattails, who in her “Editor’s Choice” column has written kindly about my work) is the subject of her haibun. That is part of the frisson of regularly reading the mini-memoirs of so many authors, no? What is factual; what is fictional? What is happening in the lives of my invisible friends, who I know so intimately, and not at all? Mary in Pottstown (near to Allentown, where I grew up) no longer in her home of 40 years; Glen’s chaotic neighbors; J. Hahn’s speechlessly dying friend—take care, everyone!

And so it is with the sorrows and tensions of this piercing haibun: the everything of cysts that may be nothing; the terror of a mother who may have cancer; and her fear for her daughter, who may find herself bereft. (My mother was deadly ill throughout my teens, and died when I was 18, so the dramatic situation of this haibun is particularly poignant for me.)

I was moved, too, by the ”sleepless nights” of the mysterious “she” of the prose, reading the sacred teachings of the afterlife, and wondering if she will ever be able to fulfill their admonitions. And the stunning detail of the “hair tie”—like the hair of a deceased loved one in a locket—holding her place in the holy book; truly beautiful and terrible, as if your own skeleton was turning the pages of your story, with its unknown—and known—ending.

And I found the two haiku wonderful. I think it was Ray Rasmussen who told me in a correspondence that someone said the haiku after a haibun should be like a whisper—and so it is with these two softly involving haiku. The “she” of the prose has closed her eyes; presumably slept; and now perhaps wakes in the “wan light” of early morning, with her prayer beads revealingly “mildewed,” like faith gone bad. And the haunting second haiku (something so apt about two haiku here: the second echoing the whisper of the first; the two mirroring the “everything” and “nothing” of the title; one haiku “descended” from the next, like a mother and a daughter), which takes us back into the memory of night . . . but, like the persona of the haibun itself, we can only go so far. And then the “bird song” of the haibun itself, forgotten in the glare of the everyday.

What I so enjoy about haibun— its ability to convey so much life (and death) in so small a space—is offered in Sonam’s memorable "Everything and Nothing." (And I hope she’s alright!)

Bill Gottlieb’s haibun and haiku have been appearing since 2014 in Haibun Today, Contemporary Haibun Online, Modern Haiku, Frogpond and many other journals. He is the author of 16 health books that have sold 3 million copies and have been translated into 11 languages, and the former editor-in-chief of Rodale Books. He lives with his wife, dog and two cats in the Mayacamas Mountains of northern California, near The Mountain of Attention, a retreat sanctuary empowered by Adi Da, his spiritual guide.

Sonam Chhoki

Everything and Nothing

The biopsy shows the cysts have grown but the specialist can’t be sure if these are carcinoma until he operates. How is she to tell her fourteen-year-old?

Into sleepless nights she peruses the Natural Liberation: Padma-sambhava's Teachings on the Six Bardos. Will she recognise the radiance of the 'Clear Light’? What if she is waylaid by the apparitions of her own fear, anger and guilt? It has been a while since she last visited the family guru or even made offerings at the ancestral shrine. She bookmarks the page with a hair tie and closes her eyes.

wan light
the mildewed prayer beads
at her bedside

dawn birdsong
something in a dream
she can’t recall



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