"What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it."
- Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
* * *
It is a teetering thing, this living. The impulse to overcome adversity matched, point for point, by the impulse to surrender. What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.
* * *
I am sore, heart-sore and bone tired.
Last night I attended a meeting of some very good and kind people who were volunteering their time to be part of mentoring program for kids in middle and high school. I was there to do the same with the crucial difference that I did not know how I could keep this commitment, and if I failed the fallout would include a setback, a disappointment, a further proof of life's unreliability to my mentee. I knew all this and had the phone in my hand to back out.
I had problems enough of my own and could hardly justify including another in my life. My heart raced. I was irritable, uncertain as to what to do and somehow I decided to get in the car and go.
As I said, these were good and kind people - generous and willing to serve - and I sat among them like a spy, eavesdropping on their willingness to set aside their troubles, their constraints and offer something of themselves. It wasn't because they knew their gifts to be so wonderful, but because they felt they had something to give and that would be enough.
I listened. I asked questions. My heart still raced and I wanted for all the world to leave that room, take back my offer to help, run back home and pace the floors like a caged animal and simply worry myself to distraction. Every bit of my conscious mind wanted to leave, knew it was wrong for me to stay, and yet I stayed, and yet I stayed.
* * *
In Wind, Sand and Stars, Saint Exupéry tells a story of one Guillaumet, an aviator who crashed in the Andes in the 1930's and how he survived a week in the ice and snow and returned to his comrades, his family. He writes:
Guillaumet's courage is in the main a product of his honesty. But even this is not his fundamental quality. His moral greatness consists in his sense of responsibility. He knew that he was responsible for himself, for the mails, for the fulfillment of the hopes of his comrades. He was holding in his hands their sorrow and their joy. He was responsible for that new element which the living were constructing and in which he was a participant. Responsible, in as much as his work contributed to it, for the fate of these men.
Guillaumet was one among those bold and generous men who had taken upon themselves the task of spreading their foliage over bold and generous horizons. To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems an unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one's comrades. It is to feel, when setting one's stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.
* * *
They say that teachers are often taught by their students, an exchange occurs that is not in the lesson plan, but one that happens when the teacher is open to it. Last night I doubted to the very core of my being that I had anything to offer to those good and kind people, to the good and kind program they'd worked on, to the young person I was to help and yet I stayed. My conscious mind - so filled with doubt and worry - was silenced long enough by a deeper current that I stayed. I took a step. Then another and was rewarded with the gift of responsibility, of a new tie to bind me to my work. Without having met my student, my mentee, I have already been taught by them.
You want to unfuck your life? Take a step, especially when you think you can't, and then take another.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
* * *
The effort it takes to unfuck your life seems easy on paper; it is another thing entirely to live out whatever fine thoughts encourage you. The savage banality of circumstance intrudes and the way forward, which seemed so clear just a moment ago, is lost in a tangle of doubt and uncertainty.
And yet there is always available to each of us the choice as to how we will engage the overweening prerogative of circumstance. Will we fold? flee? absorb the battering? Will we determine to live to tell the tale at all costs? Will we insist on our dignity, bred in the bone, as being sufficient to answer any questions life puts to us?
Mr. Melville was, by all accounts, an abject failure in the world he lived in. Forever broke, deep in debt, unhappily married and cursed with a gift that few of his contemporaries could fathom. He died, as they say, penniless and forgotten.
What such a life must have felt like to live! Unceasing war against his times. His skills were not viable in the currency of putting food on the table, yet beyond all question his works are without equal in American letters. Was he fucked, or are his works proof that he lived unfucked? Is this the measure we must take if we are fucked - that we must write Moby Dick in order to be unfucked?
No. That is no measure. That is simply what Melville did.
* * *
This morning I cleaned behind the wake of 30 or 40 homeless men, women and children; the sight of which pulled the air out of my chest: resignation, vacancy, fear and courtliness registering across their faces. I had missed my call time to be there to help this morning - the second time in as many weeks when I could not prioritize my commitment to be there and slept instead. I was late, but determined I should go and on the way there my heart raced and the old fear burned a little brighter: I am one step way from their ranks.
Is dissolution the necessary destruction in order to rid yourself of all hubris, conceit and fear? Like another great 19th century character, Ebeneezer Scrooge, are these the portents of things that will be, or what might be?
Your dissolution is compete when you decide it is, otherwise it is an endless torment, forever longing for the freedom you left behind. Destruction of your physical self is not required, only destruction of your habits of mind that limit you, that cause you to suffer without cause or greater purpose.
In Moby Dick, Ishmael is the only one who lives to tell the tale. Throughout the book, Ishmael and the rest of the crew are driven to their doom by Ahab's hatred and their willingness to be driven. Ishmael, at the end, is rendered a cork floating on the waves - an apt symbol for his life. Yet Melville affords him a remarkable grace in the closing lines of the book. After all that struggle, pain and death, Melville closes the mouths of more guileless predators and Ishmael is rescued.
That ending always struck me as nature's acknowledgment that she would not compound such man-made torment. It was the required rest after such labors.
Are you Ahab? Ishamel? or doomed Starbuck or Stubbs? Will you go willingly to your dissolution because another has made it so? Or will you choose something else? At what point does the Pequod of your life get dragged down?
Ishamel is saved by Queequeg's coffin, a symbol of life over death, and it is then, and only then the sharks become unharming. It is time to choose. Now. The dirty, sleepy, dazed two year old I saw this morning does not have a choice. His parents had chosen for him long before he was born.
What is your excuse?
Monday, October 25, 2010
Happiness hit her
like a bullet in the brain.
- Florence and The Machine, Dog Days Are Over
* * *
The fucked life is one void of happiness. It never sticks. There can be moments of elation, but happiness? Not so much. And this begs the question as to what happiness is. We all claim we want to live in the reflected glow of happiness, but I doubt we'd know it if we saw it.
Is it the absence of worry, hurt, pain?
Is it additive, a state layered over a baseline of experience?
Is it seminal? topical? internal? eternal?
What is this thing that our Constitution guarantees we have the right to pursue?
I'll give you a hint: I have no fucking idea what it might be for you, but as for me...
* * *
"I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment... One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it."
- Viktor Frankl
Now switch out the words meaning/life for happiness.
Or switch their meanings until they are the same.
Your happiness, or lack thereof, is entirely yours to suss out and live. What most people call happiness is a shallow appreciation of pleasant things. Not happiness. Happiness hits like a bullet in the brain, swapping out your easy love of easy things with the crystalline clarity of finally knowing shit from shinola.
No one can "make" you happy. They can please you, but happiness is something other than pleasure or the absence of hurt. It cuts back through all the bullshit, and demands that you live according to your own lights, and do that which only you can do. You have to kill the Buddha in order to be free. This is the essence of happiness.
* * *
You are now free to move about the cabin.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VII, 15
* * *
The most difficult challenge for the fucked is to know, understand and be who they are regardless of anyone's opinion or judgment of them. At some point in their wandering they dropped, or never grabbed hold of their essential self. Currents of doubt and betrayal, love ungiven or unreturned, the habit of going along to get along saps the life out of who they meant to be. Like husks after a dry harvest they are blown this way and that by externals, by chance, by circumstance. The misery attendant to such a life presumes that misery has no end.
And for once the fucked are right. That misery knows no bottoming, no point at which the nadir can be reached if only to gain one's footing to begin the climb out.
Such a plummet ends only when you decide it ends, and if you are fucked you'll never believe it.
* * *
I am sitting in the shade of a large Ginko tree. It is 1986 and I have retreated to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in west-central Kentucky reeling from the end of my young marriage. I am a gutted fish. It is a hot September day in my past and the shade of the tree is a relief from the heat. I am grateful that the Cistercians take vows of silence because I couldn't imagine talking to anyone. The monks and brothers communicate with a sort of sign language, but even this is often considered an intrusion on their thoughts, and the general rule is if you see somene alone with their thoughts leave them be.
The guestmaster, Fr. Damien, a tall, wiry-strong sort of fellow in his late forties walks past the tree and nods to me. I grimace a smile back and am surprised when he spins on his heel and walks back to me and sits down next to me. After a few moments, while looking out over his cloistered world, he says to me: "I can see the pain you are in, Mark and I wish I could take it away for you, but I can't. No one can do that, but I will tell you this: we are always being called into our names. Every minute of every day is another opportunity we're given to be who we are. There is only one of you and if you don't live out the fullness of that, then who will? God is always calling us into our names."
With that Damien stood, brushed out the dirt and mulch from his robes and walked off in silence. I sat there in my pain and had just been given the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, and knew it not.
* * *
We claim we want answers, but in truth we want soothing lies. Fr. Damien's faith allowed him to offer me what he had learned, and true to his word, he could not take the pain away for me, but he'd given me a tool so that I could do it for myself. But I preferred the pain because it kept me attached to the remarkable woman I'd lost. And this is how we are: vain, hurt, filled with a raging hope and a desperate longing. In Joseph Campbell's terms, we refuse the call of our lives because it is uncertain, dangerous, with no promises. The problem is it is that anyway and the longer we turn away from our lives, the deeper we are fucked.
Aurelius tells me I am bound to be good in the same way emeralds are bound to be green because that is who each of us are. But emeralds don't have to be convinced they are green, but you and I need to be convinced we are good. We wait for permission to be happy; we demean our abilities by putting them in service of economics only; we judge ourselves and others with a high dose of snark and derision and all the while we are merely dithering on shore, refusing to get wet, to enter the stream of our lives.
The plummet ends when you sit under a Ginko tree and recognize that if every moment is an opportunity to be called into your name, then every moment is an opportunity to stop the fall, end the self-inflicted misery and be emerald green if for no other reason than that is exactly who you are.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Far beyond the skies
Oh, they tell me of a home
So far away
Yes, they tell me of a home
Where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me
Yes, they tell me
Of an uncloudy day
Uncloudy Day - Gospel Standard
* * *
So much of what we suffer is self-inflicted pain, a doubling down on the externals that plague us from time to time, or all the time. This self-inducement to misery is the very worst of us for it extends, broadens, deepens the suffering that is beyond our control; it takes what is unjust, or senseless and makes it endlessly cruel.
This drift to self-suffering is the singular attribute of the fucked life.
We take what is difficult or awful or troubling and work it over in our minds until it becomes the whole of our experience. Wounds are kept fresh with daily, hourly assaults on the point of pain so that we never notice the moment when we supplant the injustice of the original hurt with a more toxic version of our own. We victimize ourselves and mistakenly point our fingers outward. These are perfect circles of logic that cannot be broken through argument or love. It takes the accumulated weight of false suffering to bring it to an end.
This the point at which we self-soothe with the truism - "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." We endure and endure and endure the pain of our days never realizing we are the source of that extended pain. We are heroic. We are Hercules at his labors. We are fucked.
* * *
This idea of false suffering is a frightening truth. Lord knows there is enough suffering in the world to hold our attention, but to willingly compound it leaves me without words to express the horror and waste of it.
This morning as I was taking my garbage out (a crystalline October morning) the thought occurred to me that I have but a handful more seasons to enjoy mornings like this and while I do not fear my death I was struck through to the bone with the frightening knowledge that over the past three years I have wasted my time, been a spendthrift in misery and there is no undoing it.
We all hurt. We all suffer the loss of love, the loss of our parents. Some of us lose our spouses our children our freedom our home our jobs our friends. Loss seems to be the permanent state of humanity. And that is simply how it is. You cannot argue with time. You cannot argue with your losses. Lazarus lives only in the Bible and no one makes too much to do about his second and final death.
Grief - the wounding that comes from an absence - has no particular shape. There aren't fixed stages that last a fixed amount of time. We resolve our griefs on our own; we accommodate the new landscape in our own ways and in our own time - sometimes spending years and years pursuing the one thing that cannot be done: rewinding the clock. I grieved my father for 7 years before letting his memory rest. What I grieved was not his death, but the absence he was when he lived and with his death the sure knowledge that that absence was all I'd get.
But is it not the same for you? Have you not suffered too long because the true loss, the true absence was you? Death and divorce, absence and loss are facts we impose our fears and longings and doubts about ourselves on. It is what makes us human, these imperfections against the enormity of time. But stay too long and the right road is wholly lost.
That's a picture of Pops Staples at the top of the page. Gospel and the spirituals that preceded it are all about a time and a place removed from this time and this place and its injustices and trials and tears. I hated it for many years because it put off until the afterlife a way of reckoning with this life. I thought such believers fools to wait. But I had it all wrong. While the song speaks of an uncloudy day somewhere else, those singing about it are right here, right now and while they may not be able to stay the hand of injustice, they can compose themselves to withstand it; they can free themselves from the imposition of loss and absence by living by their faith, by living for something other than themselves and their sufferings. That uncloudy day walks around inside them. One listen to Pops and you'll know what I mean.
To live for your sufferings is to falsely suffer. To live while you suffer is to free yourself from that suffering. Or in my terms, is to unfuck your life.
Life, like death, wants more of itself. Which will you serve?
Sunday, October 10, 2010
- J. Campbell
* * *
It pains me to say this, but the life you are living is exactly the life you deserve. Just as we get the government we deserve through our sloth, stupidity and cupidity, so, too, our lives, our gods, our souls.
Does this mean the rich are better than dumb fucks like me - possibly, but not because they are rich. Is money Life? No, for fuck's sake, no. It may be a god you worship, and so it will be the god you deserve.
For the fucked (and I count myself among that number) what we want is to live unfucked, free of doubt and trouble, free of fear and poor judgment. What we get is altogether different because we mistakenly assume that an unfucked life has no trouble, has no fear, no doubt and is as wise an owl. And so we are able to earn our fuckedness because our stepping off place points down the wrong road and all we do is circle back over the same old ground, carving a nice deep rut to wallow in.
The god you worship is the god you deserve and is the god you get.
Campbell also says this: "You become mature when you become the authority for your own life."
When we cede authority over our lives to a god, to someone else, to some fear or pursuit, we are lost. For the the very thing we need to find our way is that which we have let go of. We claim we are not worthy; we claim we have no right; we claim others know better and on and on - anything but to take the damn thing into our hands and say, "This is mine and I am the only one who can live this life."
It is easier to nurse our pride with excuses and complaints against circumstance than to own every last bit of our lives. The god you worship is the god you deserve. If you are not mature enough to claim authority over your life - your thoughts, dreams, actions - then you are, by definition, worshiping an immature god and your results can only be adolescent.
* * *
I read Campbell not because I agree with all he says, though all he says makes me think. No, I read him because of how he lived, the example he left for authoring his own life. In that regard he was fearless, meaning he accepted the fear of being outside the current of common society and lived as he saw fit - not based on tenure, or profits or reputation and in return he received all those things and more. He is a proof of Frankl's statement that happiness and success ensue precisely because one has forgotten them and devoted one's life to a cause greater than oneself.
I have been a fool lately. The totality of circumstance swamped the totality of my devotion and I am lucky that I have not had to face a more stringent master than the effluent of divorce. The god you worship is the god you deserve and I worshiped my losses and in return became lost. It is a bad way and I do not recommend it.
You must find it in you to be glad of the life you have and no other. I can do nothing about the actions of others. I cannot dim the tide of chaos that swirls through my days. I can, however, choose to act in accordance with what I know to be true - despite all outward appearances. It is this capacity to remain grounded in your Self, your Soul, your Life that delivers to you the life and god you deserve.
I have learned this lesson a thousand times. When I live in it I am surrounded by gifts of unimagined beauty, solace and love. When I despair of it those gifts becomes as alewives washed up on a dirty shore.
I am free to choose. So are you.
* * *
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
If that is the case, then add unseemly to my roster of failings.
It has been the blackest of times for me. The unending waste and bile of the divorce after the divorce ground me to a point of despair I had not ever felt before because now I knew there was no end to it. Before I could imagine a day when I would be restored to myself, free of the trails of the past 15 years, able to walk upright and embrace the days before me. But no more. There will be no such day. The bile and venom of a meaningless war continues unabated and will not cease.
I allowed this realization to paralyze me, to cut off my connections with those I love for fear of them being hurt further by this senseless mess. Work shriveled up because I could not free my mind from the pall cast over my life. Dissolution was, and is, at hand.
And yet I persist in spite of the odds and in spite of the sure knowledge of the durability of this plague. How? I don't ask why anymore, but how is this possible?
Echoes and rhymes and coincidences.
* * *
I was born August 23rd, 1960. For the whole of my life I have wondered who else was born on that day, who were the famous ones, the ones someone would write about. Turns out I share that day with Gene Kelly, Kobe Bryant, River Phoenix, Keith Moon and Barbara Eden.
And William Ernest Henley.
Somehow he didn't make the list I just looked up. He's the chap whose likeness Rodin sculpted. His daughter, who died at the age of 5, was the model for JM Barrie's "Wendy" in Peter Pan. Henley himself, a pal of RL Stevenson, was the physical model for Long-John Silver, as he was a tall, broad shouldered man with a flowing red beard, and a loud, vital way about himself and but one leg. He was also a publisher, a critic, a playwright and poet. If you have ever used or mis-used the phrase, "my head is bloodied, but unbowed," you're cribbing Henley. That line shows up in his most famous poem:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced, nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Lies but the Horror of the shade.
Yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me unafraid.
No matter how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.
It is told that Nelson Mandela found strength in this poem, this odd and old-fashioned poem of assertion, of insistence, of character. All that sounds so pathetic to our fucked ears. (Add pathetic to my list of failings as well.) And, yes, this poem echoes the same sentiment, the same thought as Viktor Frankl's exhortation that we are always free to choose how we respond to our circumstances - no matter how dire, and in so choosing be free regardless of circumstance.
It is a hard thing to do, and yet there is all this work that others have left behind to remind us to stand when we are beaten, to resist what we know to be false regardless of any other opinion. I hunt for them to leave here for you, and to remind myself to keep at it, but these are the blackest days of my life and I've been losing my way.
I recalled Invictus the other night and was comforted by the words. I've taken it to memory and use it as something of a prayer when doubt comes strolling by. But it wasn't the poem, or the movie that buoyed me, it was learning this one legged man was born on the same day as I was 111 years before that struck with the full force of coincidence, echo and rhyme.
* * *
I cannot see an end to this toxic wasteland that is the divorce after the divorce. I do not expect or hope for it to end, or to end well. But a one-legged Scotsman's got my back, a twin separated by 111 years, and that will do. That will do.
Saturday, October 2, 2010
- Dag Hammarskjold, Markings
* * *
The shortest route to the fucked life is to deny your own experience. Period. When you trade your knowledge for another's opinion, when you doubt the veracity of your experience, when your unsure mind makes excuses for other's behavior or finds that it is easier to go along to get along, you are fucked. It is hard to be who you are if you have no practice at it. Success seems to come to those who form the current that seems to glide so easily around you, who have none of your qualms, questions or inconvenient hope for something more than a brutish life spent consuming conspicuously.
But it only seems so. It is your perception of yourself (and those around you, those of your time) that implies greater ease or comfort or knowledge in others. It is not a point of fact, but one of perception.
Is the bleakness of this world of mine a reflection of my poverty or my honesty, a symptom of weakness or of strength, an indication that I have strayed from my path or that I am following it?These are essential questions, ones that we gloss over at great peril to our souls, for it is here in the tension between hope and despair, when we finally admit the latter is forever the obverse of the former and must not be denied, that you find it is easier to carry, to own your experience, to hold to your convictions because they have been earned and not merely added as a fashion statement.
This is the necessary crucible we all must pass through if we are going to unfuck our lives. And the longer you postpone it, the longer you deny it, the harder it becomes to face your life, your choices and embrace them in their totality - not just in the lovely bits - and be exactly who you are.
* * *
My brother offered me this advice the other day. He said, "You've got to do something 180 from what you've been doing, something bold and brave."
The implications of this statement lurch and yawn and rush toward sudden disruptions, chasms, bridges burned, etc., and the truth is there are some bridges that must be burned. It is too easy, too pat to keep all options open. It stinks of a magnanimous world view wherein there is never a reckoning or sorting of priorities. I have lived this and it has been key to my fuckedness. Over much is made of Cortez burning his ships, but it is an inescapable fact that we must choose, always choose one thing over another; to prize this over that and if you prize your freedom, your inherent dignity and worth, you MUST BURN your ships, your bridges, your pride in order to live fully in the midst of the mystery of our existence.
We are not born simply to die. We are here to learn how to live before we die. Deny your own experience and convictions and you are dead before you hit the ground.
Let it go. You have to choose. You have to choose your life over your death and in so choosing something else must die. This is that bold and brave thing - knowing something must die in order for you to be free (no matter your circumstances) and doing it just the same.
Burn it up so you can lay it down.