Monday, September 27, 2010

My Long-Crushed Spirit

"My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact."

- Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an Americn Slave

* * *

I heard Ingrid Betancourt on the radio the other day talking about her six years of imprisonment at the hands of the FARC, a Columbian rebel group. I had been dimly aware of her story over the years - a Columbian presidential candidate had been abducted and held in the jungle - but, please, it was such a small tragedy in the endless onslaught of tragedies we inflict on one another. When ever word came of some attempt to free her I thought, "Oh, yeah, she's that one who's been held in the jungle..."

She was rescued in February of 2009. She was on the radio to promote her book about the ordeal. I went that night to purchase it.

So much of what catches my eye, so much of what I want to read, what I re-read are stories of imprisonment and exile. At 17 I read In Search of Identity, Anwar el-Sadat's autobiography and still remember the passages about his time in prison and how it radicalized him, changed him. From that book through today I read and find solace in the stories of those, fictional or historical, who were trapped, held, forced out and managed to find their way home, managed to overcome their imprisonment, out last it, defeat it.

It seems the whole of literature is about one thing: overcoming (or failing to overcome) circumstance.

This is the story we want told, this is the story we tell. Joseph Campbell articulated the great common story of the Hero's Journey and that strikes me as the same thing. We are imprisoned - sometimes in fact, sometimes in our mind - and we either die in chains or die trying to escape them. A few manage to live to tell the tale: Ishmael, Ulysses, Frankl, Douglass, Betancourt, St. Paul, Wiesel, Graves. Others reach us from the grave: Anne Frank, Miklos Radnoti...

These stories are all about lives that have been fucked by circumstance, by choice, by no choice and all of them describe the unmitigated hell of such a life, and all point to a life unfucked by circumstance.

What is it with our modern lives, our helplessly bourgeois lives that we, who are blessed with material comfort, are fucked in the head? Does comfort fuck us? Does the guilt over our endless gifts fuck us? Must we only find examples in slavery and murder and mayhem to identify those few noble spirits who overcame their very real, very physical fucking and wrote it down so others would know such a spirit once existed?

What the fuck is wrong with us?

What the fuck is wrong with you? with me? Must we wait for calamity to wake up? And what use would that be? Having never practiced courage what reservoir will we draw from on that horrific day?

No, these tales, these stories of those who endured imprisonment, who wandered in the desert, are not told as heroic achievements, but rather as markers pointing the way: if I/we/they overcame this, this unimaginable grief, then you can unfuck yourself and get on the good foot.

* * *

I was once a slave to fear. I made terrible choices because of it and was imprisoned by those choices. I became free a few years ago and the world unrolled itself before me, or rather I unrolled myself and the world welcomed me. I was home.

Except I wasn't.

The desert is dotted with oasises, and thirsty as I was for this wandering to be done I called that patch of green home and rest and love and peace. But I have been drawn out again, there is more to do, again, there is fear yet to be tamed, again and the despair that swoops down after tasting a bit of freedom is worse than never having known any of it.

I am hungry for my freedom, hungry for my love. The journey has been naturally difficult, as it is for each of us stumbling to find our way, and I have made it more so by misjudging its end. Fear, the very chain of servitude, is self-made and has no place in a life that would be free.

Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see you a slave was made a man."

All deserts end. The trick is to out live Moses.

__________

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Joke What

A joke.

What is the difference between a trans-sexual and a transvestite?

It is really just a question of commitment.


(I think this is really funny.)

* * *

I thumb the pages of books and listen for what shows up. Just as I have sensory blind spots, those physiological dead zones where I cannot smell or taste what you or another might perceive simply because I don't possess the receptors necessary to smell and taste what you do, so, too with seeing and listening and understanding.

How many times must one see something before one sees it?
How many times told?
How many times explained?
How many times?

An infinitude, if you like.

* * *

The man pulling radishes
pointed the way
with a radish.

- Issa (1763 - 1827)

* * *

Die while you're alive
and be absolutely dead.
Then go do whatever you want:
it's all good.


- Bunan (1603 - 1676)

* * *

The eye is easily deceived. It is of two minds: rods and cones. My father was a sailor in the Second World War. This is how he taught me to remember the difference between rods and cones:

When you're out with your girl during the day buy her a cone - your rod works at night.

Staring straight at something in the dark makes it disappear. The cluster of cones is centered in the eye and are useless at night. The rods rim the periphery and so through sidelong glances, through looking away from the thing in front of you can you begin to see it.

I am here to tell you that if your life is fucked the answer is right in front of you, but you just can't see it for all the darkness. Look to the left, try the right, let go of staring at it and you'll see it.

* * *

God is a pure no-thing
concealed in now and here:
the less you reach for him,
the more he will appear.

- Angelus Silesius (1624 - 1677)

* * *

Too much is made of ambition, the drive to accomplishment, the impulse towards acquisition be it monetary or intellectual. It smacks of being a slave to another's terms. Freedom and peace are not external phenomena - they exist, if they exist at all, as an inward journey that never reaches any imagined shore.

Your life is process only. The goals that are attainable aren't worth your time if you see in them the culmination of all that you are. They are stepping stones in a river only. Stop on any one and the river will carry you away. Keep moving and the river will widen to accommodate you.

Listen:

When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."

- Viktor Frankl

* * *

I have been blessed a hundred thousand hundred thousand times. Always the answers I sought were within my reach, always the answers were given, always the presence of love, of desire stood with me, and almost always I did not see it, did not know it, did not believe it. The answer's simplicity, it's plainness made it seem impossible to be true and I doubted and feared it. To follow up on the joke, I was more transvestite than trans-sexual - I lacked commitment.

But a commitment to what? I've just dissed ambition and accomplishment as ends in themselves. What then?

* * *

Meditate
Live purely.
Be quiet.
Do your work, with mastery.

__________

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Midway Upon The

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.


- D. Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1

* * *

Memory is not to be trusted. It swerves along slalom paths, gliding easily to deliver the exact shade of color to match one's mood, predisposition, unfailing belief that this is how it was, that this is what you did, this is what you learned, and is now what you carry with you as talisman or lodestone or albatross.

Eyewitness testimony is the feeblest because what is remembered is filtered by expectation, experience and the million unseen, automatic choices the mind makes in order to navigate the sensory world. Memory is shorthand only. The trials you suffered were real in the moment and are echoes in memory. You suffer them twice when the memory replaces reality. Your joys, the same. If memory cannot be trusted with the worst in your life, it cannot be trusted with what has brought you happiness either.

So, what then are the uses of memory? Is it only a self-soothing lullaby, or a Promethian wound that never heals?

For the fucked these are the two broad options, but there is a third use that does not apologize for memory's limitations regarding fact, but instead uses memory to describe the truth of a moment: memory is story.

* * *

Dante's "forest dark" in Italian is selva oscura: sybalent, foggy, thick. Is this not what it feels like when your life is fucked? Selva oscura is the challenge each of us face by sheer dint of being alive. Getting lost here is why we are here. For scores and scores and an infinitude of scores of people they don't recognize or acknowledge the selva oscura. Life unfolds for them in an orderly manner; they matriculate from point to point along their time line and end their days happy, or at least content, never noticing the difficult love all around them. Rituals of birth, adolescence, marriage, parenthood, career, decline and death are steady drumbeats. And those who live this way are blessed. Their desire never exceeds their grasp and they know nothing of the dark wood around them.

For others this tangle is all they know - their desire unmatched by ability or sacrifice. They have eyes that see, but hands that refuse to work, that fear it. These are our brothers and sisters in fuckedness. It is a half gift to know you are lost but lack the faith to embrace the journey. We want to be like the others: happily dozing in our graves.

Memory codifies and ossifies both versions of the selva oscura.

But there is a third answer.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.


You can tell your story. You can be Dante. You can be Virgil. You can be as you are and use the memories you've accumulated to tell another story. There is an endless array, endless combinations available to you to use the stuff of your life to carve meaning out of the stone of your existence. The forest dark is not hell. It is your source material. It is quarry, motherlode. Treating it as anything other than the gift it is diminishes and fucks your life.

Hell is inaction.
Hell is indulging your fears.
Hell is denying the selva oscura.

Listen, you fuckhead, the forest dark is a grace beyond all telling for it is here your living is done.

* * *

Enough of your lip. Get to it.

__________

Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's Like A

It's like a light surrounds your face
It's like a light surrounds your face
It's like a light surrounds you
What does it mean now?

- Karl Wallinger, "What Does It Mean Now?"

It occurs to me that the various threads woven into this work, into the writing I'd done before yesterday, into the thoughts that animate my life are utterly unoriginal. I crib and copy and quote the work of others. It bounces around inside me like a super ball and I manage, for a few moments to think I have done this, that I have written x, that I created any of this.

It simply isn't true.

I have arrived too late in the game to create anything new. It is a function of being alive now and not 2,000 years ago, or 2,000 years before that.

No, my task - our task - is not to be original, but like the Baal Shem Tov we are to restore the scattered light, the fragments of that original story that lay in pieces all around us. The world is suffused with shards of light, pieces of truth, the sparks of God. The Baal Shem Tov prayed in grass fields releasing the light hidden in blades of grass and gathered that light, re-joined it, and so just that much more was added to the unimaginable whole.

I search in books and music for the same. I listen to the words my friends say, my enemies shout, my lovers whisper and I search in them for more of that light, more that I can use. My work is not to be original, but to connect, to hold the one piece of the puzzle that is absolutely mine - my life - and look for those other pieces that might fit the life I have. In this way every time one piece is added to my own (Viktor Frankl, RL Stevenson, "Sigh No More," George Simmel, Joseph Campbell, Annie Dillard, Philip Glass, etc...) the possibilities for new connections, new ends reaching out for the ties that bind grows exponentially.

The only original act left to any of us is in how we combine, re-combine and add to the one elemental piece in this puzzle - our own lives.

* * *

I have written the same story a thousand times, and will write it again and again in the belief that it adds meaning to my life, purpose to my days and that this work makes me worthy of my suffering. I have failed at many things in this life, but in this I must not fail, for this is the that solitary spark that is hidden inside me. I must keep it alive.

The same is true for you as well.

What I call the fucked life is the life we lead when we lose sight of this spark, this light and believe life is just to die, and if we so believe we die a thousand times in the pursuit of only those ephemeral pleasures that seem so important to our day to day existence. Don't get me wrong - they are. Money, sex, affluence, influence - it is all here for us to partake in as we can, but each only points to another goal to be attained: I will earn this; I will sleep with her; I will control that.

This what is meant by hungry ghosts - no one is satiated.

I am a hack, a profound loser. I have lost most of the gifts this life has showered me with. I am down only to that scattered light. At any moment along the way I could have stopped and tended to this spark, but could not until I had been stripped of all my hubris and conceit.

I am here now and I will begin again.

Frankl and Stevenson and Campbell and the sayings of the Buddha and the sayings of Christ and the music of Beethoven and the smell of my beloved and the sorrow of longing and the fear and anger behind each lie and the color of the sky just before dawn and the mercy of friendship and the wooziness of love and the determination to try again and the ache of death and the foolishness of pride and the taste of tears the taste of blood and solitary lives lived anonymously and the heroism of paying bills and the sermons on Sundays and the indifference of time and the word that hovers over the page waiting to be found all point inward. This is an inward journey - not an external one - and in the end it is solely taken to find that spark, that shard of God and live by that light.

I have had to lose everything this world cares about, that I care about in order to say these things. It didn't have to be this way. I chose it. Through fear and doubt and ego I chose it. This, too, is now part of my story. You don't have to lose everything in order to see the utter beauty, the stunning uniqueness of your life.

Just look.

The only original act is to live by the light in your head.

__________

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It Is Better

It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sick-room. By all means begin your folio; even if the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week.

- RL Stevenson, Aes Triplex

* * *

The slim, green book of Stevenson was bought several years ago at a junk shop in New Hampshire. Published in 1902, eight years after his death from an cerebral hemorrhage, it was, given its small production, a labor of love for the publisher. There could be no money in such a small volume; rather, it was the unique prerogative of publishers 100 years ago that they printed up what they wanted to see in print.

Aes triplex means "triple brass," a euphemism for a strong defense, the ability to withstand. He is talking about the inevitable tide of death (and his being so strange and apt). The solution to the riddle, by Stevenson's lights, was to live fully, feverishly, unbowed by frailty or circumstance.

If ever a man knew how to live unfucked, it was Robert Louis Stevenson.

* * *

Each of us has a book inside of us, a story only we can tell. This book, this work is not necessarily a book. It is simply the thing you must do in order to live unfucked: raise your kids, keep your job, sing, grow food, whatever it is that is solely for you to do. This idea of individual requirement, the absolute uniqueness of the individual grounds all of this. Without this assumption, the life each of us leads becomes anonymous, interchangeable. This is the realm of death.

Armies must strip out the individual in order to create the unit, and the parts of the unit are purposefully interchangeable because parts of that unit must, inevitably die. The concentration camps tattooed numbers onto their victims taking away their names, their identities because it made it easier to kill. Slaves had no name but their master's. Anywhere the uniqueness of the individual is degraded or stripped away death follows as sure as night follows day.

But these are the extreme examples, no? What about our prosaic, work-a-day lives? Are you ever overlooked, your contributions ignored, or demeaned, or worse (to the rest of the world) are you out of sync with the economic, social, or religious models?

We die slowly in these sick rooms, too.

I am emboldened by individuals, not masses. Voices crying in the wilderness are what I listen for. They comfort and challenge me to do more with what I already have.

Uniformity, conformity pale before the enormity of the individual who is fully alive, fully awake, fully on fire with the sheer pleasure of having a body to accompany their soul. Howl, rage, storm, insist on being heard, insist on the courage you need to begin your folio - whatever that may be in your case - and do it now. Our final fucking is a dirt nap and there is time enough for that. There is hardly a moment to live.

Begin. Now.

* * *

In 1890 Stevenson settled in Samoa. He was called "Tusitala" by the islanders. It means teller of tales. On December 3, 1894, after a good day's work writing, he was struggling to pull a cork out of a wine bottle and looked up suddenly and said, "What was that?" He turned to his wife and said, "Does my face look strange?" and then collapsed and died. He was 44.

Stevenson worked through illness, poverty, depression, fear that he had no more to say, and had completed works that to this day resonate and thrum with life. He died with a desk full of unfinished manuscripts. He lived until he died. Listen, it isn't that you won't get stuck or lost from time to time, maybe even for great periods of time, what matters is that you take up arms against your circumstance and insist on the life that is inside you.

Don't be a fuckhead. Do not accept a number, someone else's name or their expectations.

Find your voice.
Grow a pair.
Be known.

Amen.

__________

Monday, September 13, 2010

Our Lives Come

"Our lives come free; they're on the house, like the shopkeeper's wine. God decants the universe of time in a stream, and our best hope is, by our own awareness, to step into the stream and serve, empty as flumes, to keep it moving."

- Annie Dillard, For The Time Being

* * *

Heraclitus tells us we can't step into the same river twice - other waters are always flowing. I think it is more basic than that: the only river is the life you are living.

Buddhists teach us to enter the stream; Van Morrison sings of the River of Time; Hermann Hesse uses the image of a river to undo time; and Heraclitus warns us away from thinking anything is ever the same; everywhere around us is the metaphor of the river in order for us to gain a foothold on the nature of being. Mostly we nod in gentle agreement and think it apt if we think at all. Mostly though, it is too big, too deep, too wide for us to bother with these eternal rivers. Fuck it, I'm watching the game.

It seems the whole of wisdom to know that we are here to keep things moving. If your life is fucked, as mine has been, as it currently is, then you are gumming up the works for everyone else as well. The fucked life is a stuck life. It is stagnant and like anything that stagnates it rots, the stink of decay hangs in still air over the surface and good people shun it.

There is always something you can do. The river is always ready for you. It is you who must enter the stream of your life. You must act - no matter how difficult, no matter how futile - YOU MUST ACT. It is how the river keeps moving.

A friend said, "I'm here for a good time, not a long time."

Get off your ass and move.

* * *

A hundred years ago I saw this clip and fell quite in love with Mary Margaret O'Hara, and this song in particular. It has stayed with me for any number of reasons, but chief among them are the lines:

There is but one life
and one life won't do


You must undertake the one challenge each of us is given: find out how to live out the fullness of your name and then do nothing else except live that life.

We busy ourselves with immaterial things because it keeps our fears at bay and it is easier to fit in than figure it out, but that is the Wasteland. You are going to have to lose the old fears and enter the stream.

Anything less and you have wasted the only finite thing in this universe: your time.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Sky Was

The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

You gave your love to see in fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

- B. Springsteen, Into The Fire

Monday, September 6, 2010

I Called To

I called to the Lord from my narrow prison, and He answered me in the freedom of space.

- Psalm 118:5

* * *

I first encountered this passage years and years ago. I was working for a caterer who had a contract with the Army to provide lunches to recruits being shipped off to boot camp. I served up mucilage macaroni and cheese, grey hamburgers cooked five hours earlier and sheet cake spread thin with watery frosting. At the Army transport center where I set up my tables each week there were always a few well-meaning church ladies passing out pocket sized New Testaments that included all the Psalms. I was given one and have it to this day.

I had never spent any time with the Bible, or the Pslams, but decided I would read through all the Psalms. Somehow I choked it all down. I flitted from one to the next, could only read a few at a time, became bored with the tedious repetitions, and finally slept through the last of it. It all sounded like ass-kissing and kvetching and it sailed over me without a hitch.

It would take another twenty years for it to reappear, like a comet returning, giving me a another chance to listen to what was being said. This line from Psalm 118 appears on page 89 of my copy of Man's Search For Meaning. It is the one sentence on Viktor Frankl's lips as he falls to his knees after the camp where he has been enslaved, starved and brought to the brink of death has been liberated.

After the fifth or so reading I understood what it meant.

* * *

The Exodus story of deliverance from slavery and Frankl's story of deliverance from evil echo and reverberate around one another - each adding a depth to the other. But because of how Frankl lived, the work he engaged himself in, another dimension is added: liberation from despair.

What better description of a fucked life than that of a narrow prison? Everything is circumscribed, everything prescribed with no allowance made for you. But this narrow prison is one entirely made by your own hand. You are Pharaoh, the SS, your own capo because you keep waiting for life to conform to your expectations. Life has no interest in you or your expectations, rather it must be you who has an interest in Life and its successive demands.

Is your prison so well guarded you cannot escape? I was trapped in a futile marriage, hemmed in on all sides by money, a sense of obligation, a sense of ineptitude, fear and I suffered for years to no purpose. In the midst of the divorce I understood that the prison I had imagined had always been unlocked, yet I waited for the walls to crash down around me before I walked out into the freedom of space.

The moment you choose to be free you are. The moment you choose freedom you are then fully responsible for your life - all of it, no part left out.

You are your answer.

There are enough physical prisons in this world, relieve yourself of the one in your mind.

__________

Sunday, September 5, 2010

In The Antique

In the antique trade, not the fine, or estimable part of the trade, but the everyday leftovers of lives ended, there is a central figure that is all but unknown to the customers, but without whom they would have little to acquire: pickers.

Pickers are men, generally, who comb the city's alleys and abandoned buildings looking for anything they can haul to a dealer for some cash. They are unafraid of stealing what they see if they can imagine making a buck on it. Most of what they haul around is trash, and it always sells. It has been my experience that "antique" dealers relish these encounters because pickers are just at the bottom rung of the same brotherhood.

I once set up a small space in a rambling, decrepit mall on Belmont Avenue in Chicago trying to sell whatever it was that I came across at garage and estate sales. I watched the pickers with a mixture of disgust and awe. They stole iron benches from cemeteries, broke into homes when they knew there had been a death, they ransacked each others trucks (if they had them), but more often fought over the stolen shopping carts they used to haul their finds to the mall.

I once bought a box full of spine-busted books for twenty dollars because there was one immaculate book in the lot and it was worth over $300 dollars easy. After the sale the picker regretted it and tried to give me my money back, but that's the shitty thing about being a picker - you always risk more and make less than anybody in that particular food chain.

I mention all this for two reasons: 1) None of the pickers had anything approximating a life. Most were drunks, a few were addicts, all were dirty and almost all were homeless. The dealer who ran the mall on Belmont let one of them sleep in a corrugated metal storage container he kept in back of the building; and 2) I realized this morning that the way I go about this site is the same as the pickers I used to know. I look for evidence, clues, bits of loose string, the odd association and bring it here and try to sell to you the idea that if your life is fucked you are the only one who can unfuck it.

Picker, me.

* * *

Rarely do I know what I'll say before I say it. I listen to what is said around me, to me; I eavesdrop; I attend. Books, music, news all feed this process, but just as often it is a found thing, an unintended thing that gets it all started. I fear establishing a pattern or rhythm to any of this. That would run counter to my intention. No, all this is built one word, one thought at a time and what works works, the rest...

The rest doesn't matter because for my purposes it all works: this is how I unfuck my life.

* * *

After my father's death I was heir to the flotsam and jetsam of his sad and solitary life: a tin of pipe tobacco, a box of .22 caliber bullets wrapped in twine from when he was a teenager hunting squirrels, chipped hand tools he'd acquired at a Salvation Army store in the early '50's, his pipes, old 8mm movie cameras, a forgotten scrapbook from his childhood, a broken Walkman he listened to as he died, old invoices for his work as an embalmer, two packs of Pall Mall cigarettes. My grief was based on how little I knew of him, how secret fathers are to their sons, but also on the paltriness of his life, the narrow range of his happiness, the sadness he could never shake over the way things turned out for him: a difficult marriage, a difficult childhood that clung to him to the last, the brevity of his joy owning and flying an airplane. As I sat among his few battered assets I imagined that I could conjure the truth of him by simply understanding the relationship between these few objects that he'd once held in his hands. Emotional Archeology I termed it. Where were the connections? Where the meaning?

My time with the pickers amplified this notion until I was stultified by the magnitude of the connections, the meanings in these once meaningful objects and the lives they passed through, their personal history the worst sort of pornography - peeking in on loss, ignoring the journey that brought the silver platter, the book, the chair, the dresser, the gossip table, the tobacco tin to the shores of a resale shop.

And still I lean into the idea of searching the ground for lost money, searching in attics for a forgotten beauty, searching in books, in music, in bits of overheard conversations for something I can use, something I can bring here to show you, something that adds to the story, the beautifully sad and noble story of how we try to make our way in the world.

There are prophets in garage sales, cranks in battered boxes of books, saints in tobacco tins.

Open your eyes. Your answer is waiting for you to find it.

__________

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Everything For Brod

"Everything for Brod"

- Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

* * *

My life is illuminated by two great tracts, two great threads that I trace down, trace through the smallest gestures, the grandest pronouncements of my life: the quiet embarrassment of now finding I prefer sleeping on couches, the steady rigor of how I always put the peanut butter on the left and the jelly on the right, the soundless prayers I utter when I pass certain landmarks, the irresistible fears that wake me at 3 in the morning, the desire when I wake to find out if I have something to leave here. My life is illuminated by these two great tracts and there is no part of me, no part of my past or present that is not lit up by them and so, too, my future is also bathed in the light from these two great arcs across my days.

I never wanted the one, never expected the other, and yet there is no "me" without them. How did this come to pass? How did I live before the arrival of these two? I was happy, but, perhaps, not complete, not fully my name. And now? Can I say that I am now? No, I can't, but I now have a reason to live, to find out just what I am capable of doing in the time that I have left.

Love will do that for you.

* * *

In his maddening and beautiful book, Everything Is Illuminated, Foer imagines a magical-realist history of his family, of his great, great, great, great, great grandmother Brod. She is born in a river (her name means "river"), the only survivor of an accident that killed her mother and father. The shtetl near the river takes her in and holds a lottery to see who will raise the child, and a disgraced usurer, Yankel, becomes her father.

Yankel, whose wife ran off, is already aged when Brod comes to him. As she grows he creates an entire life in story to ground his daughter, a life that never happened: how he met her mother, how they fell in love, his sadness when she died giving birth to Brod, the imagined dead woman's favorite things, her way of speaking, until at last, Yankel believed the stories himself. He wrote long letters to himself as if they were from his imagined beloved so he could show Brod how he and her mother were the great love of each other's lives.

He indulges Brod's out-sized intellect. He showers her in books he cannot afford, and quietly, so as not to hurt his feelings, she returns them in a week or so and keeps the family floating on the round of money used to buy and return books.

As Yankel teeters toward his death he begins forgetting the stories, forgetting his own name, forgetting why there are so many books in his house. In his room, before he goes to sleep he writes messages to himself on the ceiling over his bed so when he wakes he can remember: "You are Yankel...You love Brod...You are a Sloucher...You were once married, but she left you...You don't believe in an afterlife..."

The night Yankel dies is the first time Brod ever enters his room. She finds him on the floor, a note in his hand it reads: Everything for Brod.

* * *

You are fucked when you have no one, or nothing to live for. The fucked life is always one that is pinched, circumscribed, angry at its presumed limitations; it is a life that extends only so far as its misery. Can you say, "Everything for Brod?" What is it in your life, what cause, what love is there that you can give your life to? Without this you are fucked.

I never wanted children, never wanted to be a father, and yet I am the father of four, my youngest similar to Brod, an orphan washed up by stronger currents, and while I never failed them it is only in the past few years that I understood that I never succeed for them either. To my bones they are one of the two arcs that inform my days and keep me on my path. The other... I cannot write of her, but she, too, is an arc, a thread, a tract across my days that illuminates my time, makes me glad to have lived long enough to know this is what life is for: to live for something other than your puniness; to live by the light that is available to you, and when there is none, to light it yourself.

Do not trust your darkness. Unfuck yourself by loving someone other than yourself.

* * *

"You light me up."

__________

Friday, September 3, 2010

To See Clearly

"To see clearly in a living example that a man can be at once very much in earnest and yet able to relax."

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

* * *

One of the most moving passages in the New Testament occurs when Jesus makes a blind man to see. Jesus spits into his hands and wipes them across the man's eyes. His vision is partially restored, it is all out of focus and the man says, "I see men like trees." Jesus gives them another wipe and his vision is completely restored. The fucked are either blind or have spit in their eyes and cannot see clearly, they mistake their fuckedness, their immediate and personal reality, for the entirety of all possible realities. They confuse trees for men, their assume their weak vision is how the rest of the world sees. They wallow.

Lucky for that blind man Jesus didn't give up after the first try.

Who is going to wipe the spit out of your eye?

There is no one here but you.

This is the crux of all these postings: you are the only one who can unfuck your life. Period.

That said, you are not alone, even though you must do the work alone. Your life is flooded with gifts if you would only see them. Every life is made so because where there is life there is the possibility of a complete life. Every life is utterly and devastatingly unique. The needs and demands of one will never find its match in another. You are on your own. No doubt. No doubt. But man is a giddy thing, prone to leaving trails of breadcrumbs in the face of certain obliteration. On walls he scribbles, "Kilroy was here;" at the bottom of the ocean, trapped inside a doomed submarine he writes, "I am writing blindly;" and crippled slaves teach others "The Art of Living." We are the heroes we need. We mark our trail in case someone stumbles upon it and leave clues as to what happened when we walked about. Alone on your trail you are attended by all who have preceded you, as you will attend those who come after you.

It is our greatest achievement.

* * *

In many, many ways my life is fucked right now. External circumstances, events beyond my control and those I once had a hand in are poised to strip me of the last thin veneer of the life that used to be. It is bitter to me to be in this place. But if I stay on that bitterness I stay fucked, and I say fuck that.

Aurelius' call for a relaxed and earnest man, a living example of someone unfucked, attends my dwindling days. To go back to the New Testament they say the last shall be first and the first last. If you can live just one moment of your life unfucked, clear sighted, earnest and relaxed, then you, too, will leave a trail that will help the next fucked up slob as he bumbles along. You will be as Jesus offering a second swipe.

Now work up enough spit and hock a loogie. You'll never know who needs it.

__________