Berkeley Hills Living

Jessica Laser

This is not virtue in the current sense of moral rectitude
but in the older sense of effectiveness, as when one speaks
of the healing virtues of a plant.
alan watts


Eliot’s window. The glorified
hallway that served as his room.
His bed with one pillow.

Another night, it was raining too hard
to drive home and his bed had two
because a woman had visited.
Eliot and David talked upstairs
while I slept to the cadence
of their voices through the ceiling.
When I woke, I put on my jeans.

From his window, I could see
the eucalyptus trees’ wild
gestures punctuate the fog.
The green, the gray, and nothing
beyond it. You could look at
or write something like it.
Something you could paint.

When I woke, I put on Lucinda Williams.
Eliot said, Aren’t you happy
to spend your birthday with me?

I’ll remember this with sadness, I thought,
because of what a nice moment it was:
Lucinda playing, the trees waving, tea,
but I remember it now and feel happy.


Outside, the air thicker, San Francisco
blinked through the trees. David rolled
cigarettes on Berkeley Hills Living.
A couple in khakis
and cashmere graced the cover.

I was practically their neighbor, come
to earn an English PhD, for five years
of stable health insurance, to make
the two friends I did. I can honestly say
I learned nothing. Everything I learned
in California, I learned from a plant.


Cameron and Ari led ceremony
at Cameron’s, north of Berkeley.
You signed a waiver and, as the sun sank
over his alpacas, you drank three cups
of cactus tea, taking turns, each time you’d drink,
to pray out loud at an altar they called a highly
technical machine, able to take from you
all that you didn’t need.

There was a feast after, and instruction
in the beginning, where the good
and bad news were always the same.
The good and bad news is: Everyone
is innocent. The good and bad news is:
There’s nothing to fix. How do you know
you’re really praying? Because it’s arresting.
For the writers among us, eloquence
won’t be necessary. We’re here
to heal, not be Dostoevsky.


The English department had fashioned itself
after the kind of revelation the English department
could no longer provide. This revelation was
wrought by literature; it involved discomfort,
confusion, recognition, surprise. The department
wouldn’t be moved. It got its discomfort
from critical methodology, found recognition
in new truths made of history.

But ceremony had already taught me
something about history I couldn’t forget:
everyone messing each other up—they
were all just doing their best. My ancestors
did more than flee the Tsar, sell used clothes
on Maxwell Street. The whole time, they were
praying me into being. That I live
is the sign of their success.


Cameron led meditation
from the altar in the center of the circle.
The waning daylight made my eyelids gauze
it could shine through. Think of a time
you felt unconditionally loved, he said.
It doesn’t matter who. We spent time
living in that memory and I wept
the California light back out of my eyes.
I had sudden, irrevocable access
to so much love, I thought I might die.

That was how ceremony
taught you to be happy.
Before, you thought all
happiness was conditional.


After the tea, I couldn’t eat.
I leaned against a counter,
asked Max if he remembered
something we once did together
with olive oil. He showed me a picture
of his children. Someone passed me
bread and I was asked to slice it.
I don’t know where a knife is.
I took a knife out of the indicated drawer.
I don’t hate the program, I told Michael,
who’d asked. It’s something I’ve chosen.
Then Michael came up to ask about the program.
I don’t hate it, I said. I just have to figure out how
to be better. How’s yours?
OK, he said. I’m ABD.
Wow, I said. The bread pure texture,
the knife pure control, I lamented privately
that I was done cutting it. Tyler was stirring
the soup I’d been asked to provide.
I brought that, I said. Nice, he said.
Yeah, I said. Then to Michael,
I just have to figure out what I want.
It’s not in the books, Michael said.
Yeah, I said. Then I added,
Maybe not for you.


I am done cutting this bread,
I announced. Someone arrived
with a basket. Eve. She took the knife
from my hand and put it in the sink.
I stirred soup and focused
on the aromatics of the steam.
Isn’t it funny? In a way,
it seemed like sex to me, sex with life,
breath moving in and out of my body,
the most unconditional love I’d had.

Another night, I’d stood over a flame,
asked David and Eliot which courses
I should take. Eliot said I’d phrased it
in an odd way, a moral register.
I’d asked if taking such courses
would be ill-advised. He told me 
I was obsessed with morality.
David came as ever to my rescue,
telling Eliot that he, in fact, was obsessed
with morality, for having characterized
my neutral question as moral.

In the center, we offered
a last prayer before breaking our fast.
Max shifted uncomfortably, or maybe
it was me. He had been in recovery,
surfing. I’d lie out on his giant beach towel
reading Stevens, taking and then sending
videos to my friends. One video included
my breasts and “Sailing After Lunch.”



i’m so sorry,

Eric wrote me. He had accidentally
forwarded it to Chris.


I had started with some silly words
I don’t remember now, felt
watched and embarrassed, until I said
I guess the bottom line
is that I would like to fall in love with my life.

I hugged Cameron on the way back to my seat.
His wife usually joined for ceremony, but that afternoon
she was pregnant with their baby. Cameron’s prayers
were always about her, about being more
of what makes her happy. When we hugged,
he said
That’s what I want, too.


I had wanted to get to the bottom line.
There were so many people in the circle,
it seemed important not to take up time.
But I would get up and offer my prayer
and sit back down and think of important things
I hadn’t said. And then I wondered if I shouldn’t
go back up and say them. It can’t be, I consoled myself,
that only prayers offered at this altar are answered.
But I had never asked for more medicine than the minimum,
and it seemed time to try something new. So I interrupted,
it was just before Eve’s turn, and said, Eve, is this OK?
And she was so obliging then, like a mother.


In the next room, where I’d wandered holding
a slice of bread, two couches faced each other.
The floor to ceiling windows revealed a huge
and terrifying external darkness. Cameron
was eating a plate of steak and chicken
and quinoa with currants and pizza and salad
on one of the couches, talking to someone
he knew, beside him, who was also eating
though with less vitality. I listened to them talk
about buying property in Hawaii.


I first heard of chakras in a physical theater
intensive I took one summer in college.
The teacher played vaguely tribal music
while we explored them one by one, starting
with the red one at the base of the pelvis,
not touching that area but moving from it,
featuring it as the movement’s driving force.

As sometimes happened, I started crying
and had to leave the room. That’s how I met Sonya
who introduced me to Max when I lived with her
after college in Topanga. We lay semi-supine
in the hallway outside of our classroom.
Are you OK? she asked after a while. Yeah,
I said. OK, she said, then I’m going back in.

When I went back in, I expected the teacher
to congratulate me on the depth of my feeling.
Instead, she said, These are techniques
you are learning for the sake of the theater. It’s
as important that you are able to inhabit a moment
as it is that you are able to move on from it
completely, without a trace.


Eliot touched my face and told me
I would live into my nineties.
I ate some cream of mushroom
soup Eve made. Michael drove home
while I navigated, reciting all the poems
I’d ever known to stay awake.
He had to pull over more than once
so I could do something Cameron
and Ari called “get well.” I must have been
holding onto ceremony, I thought, bending
over a grate on the side of the highway,
because here I am letting it go.

Jessica Laser is the author of three collections of poems, including The Goner School.
Originally published:
June 1, 2022


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