Saturday, November 27, 2010

You're Looking For

You're looking for evidence
When you're living proof.

- Karl Walinger, "Sunshine"

* * *

I've spent a good deal of my life looking for answers. Not just any answers, not answers that could, say, improve the quality of drinking water in Sub-Saharan Africa, or positively impact dropout rates at inner-city schools, or feed, heal, cure any one on this planet other than myself. I was better than that. I sought burning bushes, gazed at my navel, read as much of the Upanishads as I could choke down and in the end simply wasted my precious time.

The answers I sought were always unanswerable. They do, however, provide great cover while dithering away one's life. One looks so busy and serious and deep and well, profound.

Except, of course, one is none of the that. One is a shithead.

* * *

My head is clotted with bits of song, passages from books, scripture, movie lines, jokes, memories of words said or unsaid to those I love and those I could do without: the accumulated rust of fifty years. I strained to see the use of it. So much information, so little knowledge. But it is not the fault of the songs or books or movies or loves that has made their accumulation useless. Child, it was me not using that info to create something new: my life.

To be fucked is to want answers but to not put those answers - whatever they might be - into action. Doubt, fear that you've got it wrong, or won't know how to work this damned thing, keeps you circling back trying to get it right.

I keep getting caught in the rain,
Fooled again and again.
I start acting like there's no tomorrow.
Drowning in a sea of pain and sorrow.

It has such a familiar ring to it, no?

But that's just you stuck on the wheel of your own fears. Stop. Leave it behind. Life is always ready for you to join it, but bear this in mind - the game clock is always winding down and you have no idea how long the game will last. If you are going to get any living in before time runs out then you'd better start right now. Truly, what will you be giving up? Your doubt? Your fear? Your victimhood? Are these things worth clinging to (like guns and religion)?

Don't be a shithead all your life.

* * *

The verse from Walinger's song is:

You're down in the basement
When we're up here on the roof.
You're looking for evidence
When you're living proof.
But we hope you're gonna make it,
Up here.

I have to tell you: Karl is right, as was Plato's Allegory of the Cave, as was this odd couplet:
The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

There is no want of clues for you to unfuck your life. It strikes me the whole of man's striving has been to do just that - moving from need to need (food, shelter, meaning, purpose). What has gone wanting is your willingness to live by the light in your head and not simply live in the reflected glow of others' work.

The world will not notice when you die. That is a human value - to miss the dead, to mourn the dead - but even that will fade in time and sooner than you think. No, the world won't notice when you stop breathing and I'll forget soon, just as you'll forget me. So live while you can. You have everything you need right now. There is nothing that you need, nothing that you lack. You have been your answer all along.

Don't make a big deal about it. Forgive yourself quickly. Show, don't tell.

Oh, I said,
Sometimes I just can't get enough of you.
Sunshine, you just blow my mind.
Gonna take it all, gonna change it all for you.
And I'm so glad that you found me,
Yeah, you made it just in time.
Yeah, I'm so glad now - I'm getting delirious.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Proposition 15 He

Proposition 15: He who clearly and distinctly understands himself and his emotions loves God, and does so the more, the more he understands himself and his emotions.

- Baruch Spinoza, Book 5, Ethics

* * *

My translation of Spinoza says this: "Spinoza was one of the three greatest Jewish teachers, along with Jesus and the author of Job, and the only one of the great Western philosophers who deserves to be compared to Lao-Tzu or the Buddha. He lived with the irreproachable integrity of someone who understands not in his head, but in his blood and bones."

That is about as far away from living a fucked life as you can get. But why? Why is irreproachable integrity so far out of our reach? The answer is held in Proposition 15: do you clearly and distictly understand yourself?

* * *

I have known but one person who lived with such integrity, and I knew him only in a few brief moments of my life: Fr. Damien, the Guestmaster and later Abbot of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Ky.

The life of a Cistercian monk is so completely out of step with the world that surrounds it so as to make that life seem like fiction: devotion, solitude, silence. But the one aspect of the life that is always left out is doubt. I came to see the brothers and monks of the Abbey not as men who had achieved a state of grace, but rather as ones who wrestled with their desire for that state and their doubt that it existed. They lived their lives on the bone.

Damien is tall in my memory, wiry strong, with large knobby hands, close cropped hair and a pervasive sense of decency and patience about him. On my retreats to the Abbey nothing was required of me - no mass, no confessions, no nothing. It was about as non-religious as a monastery could get. I was there in the throes of my confusion at the break up of my first marriage. After a few days of walking the grounds in a stupefied silence I asked Damien if he'd hear my confession.

We sat next to one another - no screen, no division between us. I tried to remember the script of, "Forgive me father, for I have sinned..." but I had no heart for it. Damien sat still, his eyes closed, waiting for me to continue and I finally said, "My greatest sin, Father, is that I find myself here and not at home with my wife." I pierced him through with those words. He winced and shook his head slightly from side to side and then he raised a hand over me, still not looking at me, and in a voice that echoed from some deeper place than his throat, absolved me of that sin.

Later, as I was leaving, he told me I needed to "sit with it," the mess of my life and find out what worked and what didn't and then do that which worked.

* * *

Perhaps it is unfair to compare ourselves to thinkers like Spinoza, or to those who have the ability to withstand and/or bear fools with loving kindness as Damien did, but what is a man's reach for, if not to exceed his grasp? The more we know ourselves, the more we sit with the mess of our lives, the closer we come to fulfilling Proposition 15. For some of you fucked fuckers even mentioning God will throw you in a tizzy, but that is only because in your fuckedness you've assumed God means what you've been taught in Sunday school. That is a fiction, a beautiful fiction and for some it is a great comfort. But God, as Baruch would have you know is "a being absolutely infinite," of whose attributes your irreproachable self is but one aspect.

Now get to it.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Oh Not Because

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which
would exist in the laurel too...

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some
          strange way
keeps calling us. Us the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been 
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

- RM Rilke, "The Ninth Elegy," Duino Elegies

* * *

In conversation the other day a woman said she still hoped to be a better person, that she had placed herself on "an affirmative path" to become that better person she imagined she could yet be. She sat, bird-like as if on a nervous perch, her eyes never once meeting mine, but always flitting to the ground or somewhere off to the left or right, but never at me as she spoke to me. I said, "For me I am done with trying to be a better person. It implies I am somehow worse, in need of fixing. But to what standard? No, I am done trying to be a better man. I am aiming for complete - no part left out."

The Self-Help Industrial Complex is made for fucked fuckers like you and me who know something is missing and assume something ain't right. There is a chicken soup for every sort of soul and gurus rise and fade and all profit from the fucked. But they, too, are fucked. Their stepping off place is the same as the woman perched on her intent to be better: what ails you can be fixed with a prescription, a course, a methodology, the power of positive thinking. As if wishing could make it so.

There is something wrong - you keep looking outside of yourself for answers. Kill the Buddha. You have work to do - not on yourself, but of yourself. What's been missing from your life is you.

* * *

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.

- Joseph Campbell

* * *

Budapest from St. Matyas Temple
She was beautiful in ways that I could not say were attached to her physical self. She was twenty years older than I was. Unhappily married. The mother of a bright and handsome boy of maybe eight. She was the first person I had ever met who was fully alive and that did not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, she was happy in the sense that most of us aspire to: peace, stability, a lack of problems. Her's was something else entirely - she walked with the hard-won grace of a survivor.

Borbala Szendro was my Hungarian language teacher in Budapest in 1984. I had a serious school-boy crush on her. She would take the lot of us exchange students on walking tours of her strange and tired city and always we would walk arm and arm. She never seemed hurried and delighted in sudden beauty: a grocer with baskets of warm, red peppers, a vine creeping over a wall, the quality of a light in the cafe she like to take us all to. She was at ease with herself.

I mistook that ease for sexual interest - and it may have been - but I was too locked into my blinkered worldview to even imagine pursuing it. Instead I simply loved being in her company. Perhaps she had witnessed enough deprivation, enough violence, enough man-made misery that having survived it she vowed to be live only as herself and take what pleasure and happiness that came to her. I don't know. We never spoke of any of that. We simply walked together: a middle aged Hungarian woman who was born in a time of war and a punk-assed American born into a time of plenty and I knew then I was in the company of a rare sort of person - one who was alive in spite of being alive.

* * *

The answer to life is to live - completely, fully, to use it up before you lay it down. Do not die with gas left in your tank. Apparently, this world needs us to do just that in order for the next thing to arrive. Half-measures and false suffering - the hallmarks of the fucked - are worse than doing nothing at all for it taints the water with self-righteous victimhood when what is needed is the ability to walk arm in arm across the city and be delighted by prosaic beauty - the impulse to be alive right fucking now.

 * * *

Borbala, by the way, means "wine-dancer" in Hungarian.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

All Stories Stop

All stories stop: once more you're lost
in something I can merely see:
steam spiriting out of black coffee,
the scorched pores of toast, a bowl
of apple butter like edible soil,
bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass,
my plate's gleaming, teeming emptiness.

- Christiam Wiman, "Sitting Down To Breakfast Alone," Every Riven Thing

* * *

1993. Grant's Pass, Oregon. I am there working on the final, staggering legs of the movie The River Wild. It has, to put it mildly, been something more than an adventure. Beyond the extended contact with helicopters, white water rafting, mountaineers, and bougy Hollywood types, I married a woman I had met but four months earlier. We lived apart for most of the first six months of our marriage and now are within a stone's throw of each other in our divorce.

But to Grant's Pass, 1993.

The primary pleasure of working on the job was the decency and kindness of one of the movie's stars, David Strathairn. It wasn't that he added no drama to the set with outsized demands to stoke his ego (though he never did) it was the interest he took in those around him that made every last one of us willing to walk through walls for him. He was one of us.

We were idling away a cold, dank morning in late October along a quiet eddy of the Rogue River. The film was winding down with only a few more days left to get some shots of David in the water and running along the river. No drama. Just passing shots to give the editor something to work with. I had purchased a sleek, black 1950's typewriter at a garage sale and was banging out a treatment to a story that I imagined belonged on film. It was a take on the fall of Satan from heaven. He held no evil. He was a spurned lover trying to find his way home.

I gave the piece to Mr. Strathairn and in his kindness he said, "I thought you were a poet-guy, not a movie-guy."

* * *

All stories stop. All stories. The terminus is our long dirt nap. Others will be left to tell our tales and over time they'll get them wrong and with enough time even the mistakes will fade as one generation's passions become a further generation's unknowing. Do you know the stories from your great-grandparent's time? How much can you tell? I live for this stuff and only have fragments that may or may not have belonged to them and there is no undoing it.

I'll repeat Christian Wiman's statement: All stories stop.

Knowing this, how can you allow a minute of your life to spent being anything other than your own true self?

It is the habit of the fucked to imagine fields of possibility - and it is true, there are endless possibilities. But so much choice has the tendency to paralyze, thwart, subvert and misdirect our efforts. I loved working in movies. It was a shaggy-dog sort of life wherein I met some of the best and worst people I have known, but the truth is I was there because of possibility - not desire, and that explains why I am no longer there. Life needs a form to define it. One thing must always be chosen over another in order to unfuck yourself.

* * *

Wiman's book has restored something to me, reminded me of who I am. It isn't that I fancy myself a poet - I am not - but I am someone who loves words, language, the process of wrestling words and language into forms that others can enter into. My film career was started with the idea of bringing myself closer to the center of an industry built around process and forms and so find a way in where my words could find a home. But I was bribed, gladly bribed to leave it alone and become a fieldhand. Which would have been fine if I had continued to love words and process. But I did not.

When David Strathairn asked about being a poet-guy or a movie-guy I had no answer. I just wanted work. 17 years later his kindness still stings.

* * *

We are not here for long.
Unfuck yourself.
There is nothing to fear.
The frightening thing is not dying.
The frightening thing is not living.
Tattoo it on your forehead.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Even The Most

Even the most beautiful words are but signs pointing the way; they are not the way itself. The whole point of living this life is to move past the signs and engage the external facts of your life with your internal knowledge - a primal, bred-in-the-bone type of knowledge that uses language and art as approximations for what it knows.

All these posts are ghosts of the thing I'm trying to live. They act as reminders, bits of string tied around my fingers in order to remember what it is I am here for - what it is I have to give. I have the sense that I could tattoo these things on my body, but resist because if I ink one into my skin I would soon have a hundred.

* * *

"The dark night of the soul comes just before revelation. When everything is lost, and all seems darkness, then comes the new life and all that is needed... The crisis throws you back, and when you are required to exhibit strength, it comes."

- Joseph Campbell

* * *

We are, each of us, required to exhibit strength throughout our lives. We each face crises that are utterly unique to our circumstance, and we are left to our own devices to solve those riddles. Except mostly we don't. And this is the source of our fucking: not the crisis itself, but our weak resolve to face it.

I have lived poorly for the bulk of my life. I have always been too smart by half. The challenges that Life put before me were met with cleverness and cluelessness as to what those challenges actually were: opportunities to discover and live by my unique strengths without giving a fiddler's fart about what anyone else said or did. These were my challenges, my gifts and I abdicated my authority to resolve them to the nearest external authority: school, jobs, marriage, etc. But here's the thing: Life will continue to question you, challenge you and afford you the opportunity to find the required strength to be who you are. No guarantees about money or health or love or external freedom; but it does vouchsafe your name if you will embrace the choices you have to make.

"I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church...And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too."

- James Joyce

* * *

I am deeply grateful to whatever gods may be to have survived the past few years. That dark night is over for me, and yet I know there are more ahead. It is the nature of Life to be unpredictable, to be cruel, to be breathtaking, to be generous, to be fully outside of our ability to control. As such we will be asked again and again who we are and to find the required strength to keep that name.

It takes a deeper commitment to Life than any fucked one of us will allow in order to unfuck your life. We want everything to be okay, for the fog to lift, the hurt to stop, for happiness to flow, but refuse to sacrifice anything in order to get there. We simply want it and that has never been and will never be enough.

You must choose, and like Joyce you must be willing to make a great mistake without fear, and then live by your choices, your name.

* * *

The most beautiful words I know are:

"What ails thee?"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

As I've Gone

"As I've gone through life, I've found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years old."

- Walter Murch, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film

* * *

So much of what fucks us is the inevitable layering of other's opinions about ourselves that it becomes impossible to see our original self and so we work and wander in another man's clothes. Life moves in bursts and jerks, in headlong rushes to cul de sacs, in mucilage stasis, in tentative steps because we have forgotten to be who we meant to be and instead fulfill the wishes and clammy fantasies of those closest to us.

Here, where it matters most, we are absent. We've traded what we're capable of for what is at hand.

* * *

"What did you do as a child that created timelessness, that made you forget time? There lies the myth to live by...  As an adult, you must rediscover the moving power of your life. Tension, a lack of honesty, and as sense of unreality come from following the wrong force in your life."

- Joseph Campbell

* * *

Growing up in the Catholic Church there were always prayers for vocations, the call to priesthood. It was the first place I heard the word and for most of my childhood assumed vocation was a Latin term for being a priest. And yet that really isn't a bad definition, is it?. Each of us, in our own ways, and in our own time are left to answer the one question Life has for all of us: how will you express the privilege of being alive? In other words, what is your vocation, your purpose in life? What will you give your life to?

There are no answers hidden in the pockets of another man's clothes.

* * *

They filed into the church draped in white robes. There were maybe six of them. All young men. All solemn. All moving toward the altar as a condemned man might walk to his death: resigned and free at the same time.

I was sitting with my mother and father towards the front of the church, St. Raymond's Cathedral, and stood on the kneeler in order to see better. The six men in white robes arrayed themselves in a semi-circle in front of the altar and then did something extraordinary - they lay face down on the ground with their arms spread wide. They lay that way for the bulk of the service. Chants and blessings and prayers and songs floated down to them on the floor as dust and snow falls without a wind to stir them and when they rose they were no longer young men, but priests.

It is impossible to know if these young men had always felt the call to the priesthood, or whether it became apparent with time. It is impossible to know if these young men were as good as their vows. It is impossible to know if they chose the priesthood out of fear, or expectation or simple devotion.  It is impossible to know any of this. I was barely a witness to their transformation, but I will attest that something was transformed, forever altered by the snow drifted prayers that covered them on the floor. We all wanted to believe in their vocation.

If them, why not you?

What is your vocation, my fucked friend?

Don't know? Don't worry, you once knew it, when you were a kid you knew it, only you didn't have the words for it. It will come to you if you are willing to shed the dead skins of other's expectations and live solely by the light in your head.

You enter the forest
at the darkest point,
where there is no path.

Where there is a way or path,
it is someone else's path.

You are not on your own path.

If you follow someone else's way,
you are not going to realize
your potential.

So quit reading this and get to it .


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I Have Lived

I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside!

- Rumi

* * *

There are lots of markers of a fucked life. I've lost track of the ones I've spelled out here, but I don't think this one has made the list yet: wanting to know reasons.

In a Kundera story the protagonist walks up to a man vomiting in the street and says, "I know what you mean." I read this bit of Rumi - the lip of insanity and wanting to know the reasons going hand in hand - and I think, "I know what you mean."

What reason would satisfy a fucked life? Desiring answers we can't bear the truth, and so we ask some more; we knock on doors; we bang our fists on tables; we shout at the moon demanding an answer as to why it is the way it and not as we would have it.

We are petulant in our misery, forever fucked because what we want can't be given.

We are the answer to our questions. Only for the fucked that answer will not do.

* * *

He is drunk. I can tell by a wildness in his eyes that simply does not exist when he is sober. He is not a man who is drunk often, but this is a bender, a two day self-pity fest that will last as long as the beer does.

My father is a few years away from his brittle death and he is standing in the doorway of the kitchen, a beer in his hand, his white short sleeved t-shirt pulling against his middle. His glasses are off and the two deep indentations along the bridge of his nose from the weight of his glasses are a deep, crimson purple against his tan face.

He offers me a beer and it is more a dare to stand there and listen to him than to drink with him. I take a beer from the fridge. He takes a pull on his and says, "Goddamn, bitch." He steps into the laundry room and slides his torso over the washing machine, burying his head in the crook of his arm and repeats himself, "Goddamn, bitch."

I walk around to face him. He rights himself and his eyes are full of anger and unspent rage. He continues, "Can you tell me, Mark? Can you tell me? That one," and he ticks his head back into the house and I assume he means my mother, "can't tell me. You're smart. Can you tell me?"

Tell you what, Dad?

And here he straightens himself and stares past me.

"Can you tell me why my mother didn't love me? Can you tell me why she left me when I was just a little kid? Can you show me in the Bible where it says that's what you're supposed to do, because that bitch loved Jesus more than me. Why didn't she love me, Mark?"

Almost sixty years since his mother abandoned him to follow a Pentecostal revival show and he still wanted answers, answers he knew he'd never get for she'd been dead for five years.

* * *

My father was fucked and for too long I've taken over the family business of wanting answers, reasons to what is unjust, what is senseless, what fails to live up to its potential. It is a bad way. It compounds facts with imagined answers and serves only to keep you fucked.

Like Rumi, I have been pounding on a door desiring to be let in where the answers are, where the reasons bide their time, where I could find out why the brutality of the past few years had to unfold as it did and not in some other, less painful way. But there are no such answers to be found. It ain't why, why, why. It just is. That's all there is about it.

Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Asking why some people are the way they are and expecting a viable answer is the same.

You want to unfuck your life? Quit banging on the door. You are already in.

* * *

He was quiet. The time for crying was passed. He was sitting up in his hospital bed. He looked almost well. It was like an Indian Summer before the chill of his death swooped down on us all, and he was telling stories. I had heard them all dozens and dozens of times, but thought this could be the last time he tells them and I listened. Stories of fishing trips, of wayward uncles, of funerals gone wrong, of his first time as a pilot flying at night, of Orion, of a high-school sweetheart, of cars, of how he liked to swim by himself, of his time in the Navy, of his friends, of my brother, of me and nowhere not a breath about the woman who bore him and abandoned him.

His last stories were about the love he had. Not the love not given.

He was unfucked just before time ran out.

I'll not wait so long.

* * *