Saturday, January 29, 2011

You Can Judge

William Cullen Bryant
You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks
Yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it's staring right back

- Dawes, "When My Time Comes"

* * *

The fucked are forever in their dying. They die each day instead of dying but once. It wounds their pride that life should affront them with setbacks, infirmities, unfairness, unforced losses, calamity and catastrophe. They never move past the obvious to find life still moving without them. It is no loss to life, the universe and everything if you sit on your hands and bemoan the fate you think you were given (when in fact it is the fate you created). Do nothing and life will be just fine. It is you who will be fucked.

Nice way to spend a lifetime.

* * *

He was a wreck of a man - an alcoholic, a garbage picker - who lived alone in a one room basement apartment and had several run-ins with the police and had, in fact, served time in the penitentiary. And I loved him with all I was capable of. His name was Stanley Raduus. He'd been a parolee of my grandfather, Paddy Deegan, and Stanley attached himself to my family for the love he had of my grandfather.

When he was sober Stanley worked at McNulty's Boiler Works on Halsted. When he worked up a stake he'd go on a months long bender. When the money ran out he'd sober up and do it all again. I remember him sifting through the ashtrays in my grandmother's car to find cigarettes that might still have a puff or two left on them - the fire engine red lipstick simply the modest cost to find a bit of free tobacco.

Stanley was weedy, thin, always looking like he could be snapped in two by a stiff wind, but he was more iron than weed and his strength always took me by surprise. One day Stanley had migrated out to our house in the south suburbs. He'd hitched rides or walked form 47th and Western to 106th and Harlem. He had a gift for me. He'd been going through the alleys picking through the trash when he came across a book, The Poems of William Cullen Bryant, that he thought I should have. It was published in the late 1890's after Cullen's death and became the foundational object of my attempt to build a personal library.

When he arrived at the house he was soaked through with sweat and in need of a drink. I was alone at the time and had been told many times to not let him drink. He knew the same and took the water I gave him without question. I asked him why he'd come so far to bring me the book. His answer was this: "When I saw it sittin in the trash I thought that was the wrong place for a book and I knew how you liked to read so I figured I had to bring it to you."

I had never found out why Stanley was in prison. I never knew why he left his wife. I had no knowledge of why he drank, only that he did and it got him trouble every time. I was 14 years old and I wanted to ask all of that, but didn't. We were sitting in the kitchen together. I made him a sandwich and we just sat together not saying anything and then Stanley just started to cry and he said, "Do you forgive me, Mark? Can you forgive me? I done everything wrong. Do you forgive me?" It was his refrain. Every time we talked on the phone he'd ask that question and every time I said, "Sure, Stanley. I forgive you." But him sitting there made it more real, he wasn't just a disembodied drunk voice. He was flesh and bone and he was lost. I told him, "Always, Stan. Always."

He wrapped his wiry arms around me like bands of steel and I could smell the sticky sweet/sour of his sweat and he held me for a second and then let me go. "That's all I needed, Mark." And he walked out and headed back to 47th and Western.

* * *

Each of us are wounded simply by the act of living. Our losses are tides pulling us back and forth and sometimes pulling us apart. And so it goes. Stanley was pulled apart by some loss he never revealed. He stitched himself together with alcohol and the sometimes grudging patience and love of my family. When he died it was a one car funeral. We were all he had. If it is true that the last shall be first, then Stan is at the head of the line. He could not unfuck himself. He'd let the pain become part of his bone, but even through the fog of alcohol and his disheveled life he didn't want it to be that way. He'd traveled on foot on a hot summer day with the excuse of delivering a book in order to be forgiven by a 14 year old boy.

Always, Stan. Always.

* * *

Who will forgive you?


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In This World

In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
You too shall pass away.
Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

- Dhammapada

* * *

If you are fucked it is because you still think hate will overcome your difficulties: hatred of yourself, hatred of another, hatred of the bloodroot fact that you will die. Have at it, my friend. Have at it. The genius who wrote Ecclesiastes referred to tools such as yourself as sound and fury signifying nothing.

Quite the epitaph.

Living so you miss the basic enterprise of living. Namely, to signify something.

Greater than the God who created the cosmos in six days, we create the cosmos everyday, day in and day out, and have done so for tens of thousands of years. If man is anything he is a maker of meaning, a builder of signs and portents, religions and faiths, a dervish dancing in the void of space littering it with meaning. Each day we face the challenge of wrestling purpose out of our limited days. And that purpose is written in as many languages as have haunted the globe, written in as many tongues that speak, written by every action you take or don't take. You are crafting your life whether you know it or not, whether you care or not

What, exactly, have you wrought?
Where, exactly, have you been plying your life?
Why, exactly, have you done, or not done what you are capable of?
What the fuck is stopping you?

* * *

Here's the answer I've come up with: you have to love something other than yourself in order to unfuck yourself. Love of self becomes hatred of all that is not Self. I can hear you bitching from here that Oprah wants you to love yourself. Good. Do it. Just not at the cost of others. The greatest expression of your love is to give it away, not blowing kisses to yourself in the mirror.

And how is that love to be given away?

By building meaning, signs, portents, religions and faiths and dancing in front of your sorrows to show them they nothing more than a falling leaf - no matter how deep the grief.

We live in a time of unprecedented peril and unprecedented opportunity - and it has always been so, don't kid yourself. The human enterprise expands when our love is used to build connections and meaning. The enterprise contracts when all meaning is self-directed and connections cut.

Knowing this, how can you let your voice be silent?


Friday, January 21, 2011

I Feel Sweet

I feel sweet
Do you feel sweet?
It's amazing

- K. Leontiou, One EskimO, "Amazing"

* * *

The arc of our lives, the arc of our days, the arc of our love, this unwinding gyre spools to one conclusion: communion - with another or with several or with nature or with God, but the conclusion is inviolate: we die to ourselves and give that life, that love to the Life that surrounds us.

You are fucked without this. Roethke asks, "What is eternity for?" The fucked fear eternity because they fear their lives. When will you see the brevity of your time as eternal? My dear fucked ones, you are blessed beyond all telling. Stop shitting on your gifts.

* * *

When I was in third grade I attended St. Raymond's Cathedral in Joliet. Every Friday the entire school went to Mass. I had yet to matriculate to my First Holy Communion. Others in my class went up to the grand, high vaulted altar to receive their portion of the Host, but not me. Every Friday I was left in the pews and it made me feel little, puny, excluded.

So, one Friday I simply got in line with the rest of the mooks in my class and walked up. I had no idea that there was anything to say or do. It simply looked like so many little birds being fed by their mother, their mouths open, waiting to be fed on the body of Christ. When I got to the priest I was in a panic. He was methodically holding the host in front of the faces before him whispering "The body of Christ," and not really noticing the differences in the ruddy faces before him. When I got there and he said "The body of Christ," he was about to put the wafer in my mouth when he froze and realized I was not supposed to be there. I looked up at him full of fear. I was busted and then he did something remarkable, he smiled and let me eat from the Mystical Body.

I walked back to my pew, the wafer sticky and pasty on the roof of my mouth, a bit shaky, but glad, very glad I had gone. He never ratted me out, never made a big deal of it, never spoke of it to me or my parents. Who was he to stop me or reprimand me for wanting to join the communion?

* * *

It is to this your life bends: a cause greater than your own.

It needn't be mystical, or religious, or any such folderol. It must, however, be born of love. When you can see your life as a gift to give away, then you will have found the way to unfuck your life. Trying to keep it all for yourself, or fearing the required risk to let it go will keep you stuck and fucked. Baby, this I know.

Get to this place, find your way here by hook or crook and the old fears become objects of your sympathy and the harshness of your judgment of others, of yourself is laid to rest, and the bittersweet melancholy of wasted time simply becomes the sweetness of being alive - here and now.

Now go and sin no more.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

As All Human

As all human things, especially the lives of men, are transitory, incessantly declining from their beginning, till they arrive at their final period; and as that of Don Quixote had no peculiar privilege from Heaven, to exempt it from the common fate, his end and dissolution came, when he least thought of it.

- M. Cervantes, Don Quixote

* * *

I have a prized possession, an object I value over all other objects: an 1820 four volume set of Quixote in full green Moroccan. The end pages are foxed, but the spines are pliable. The set was originally sold in Dublin by Grant & Bolton, Booksellers & Stationers, No. 1 Dame Street. I came into possession of it over twenty five years ago when I bought it from Booksellers Row on Lincoln Avenue. At the time I was without money and was in the habit of selling my books to Booksellers in order to limp a little further down the road. When I saw this set in the window I knew I had to acquire it and if it meant a month of rice and onions, then so be it.

Such is the power of certain objects on our imaginations.

My 25 year old self took to reading a bit each night out loud from this set to my best beloved as we lay in bed. These here were books, real books, with real heft and I felt like a Rockefeller owning them and I loved showing them off to her, and she, in her kindness, let me.

Such youth!

But why this personal history of an object? Because none of us has a peculiar privilege from Heaven, and if your life is fucked today must be the day you begin to unfuck it.

* * *

Soon this set of Quixote will leave my hands and belong to another. Maybe they will read it to their beloved; maybe they will spill wine all over it, but I will have no knowledge of it. The good that it brought to me will have been fulfilled while I was cognizant of that good - that is what makes it an absolute good to me. As Joseph Campbell says, "The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." And who I am is a guy who, in part, loves books, the physical presence of books as well as the miracle of what is contained in them: messages from the dead and dying.

And that knowledge is a leg up on unfucking my life. What, my fartlet, is that thing that helps bring you in line with yourself? What, in part, can you identify in the material world that echoes a knowledge you possess that exists well past words and simply is? Find it. Search it out. Let it remind you of who you are privileged to be.

And don't fuck it up.

But here's the good news: even though you have but one chance to live, you are privileged with as many Mulligans as you need while doing so.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Force That

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
- Dylan Marlais Thomas, 
"The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drive The Flower" 
* * *
To be fucked is to be removed from yourself. No one can do this to you except you. There is no outside actor that can impose it on you. Truly, truly, truly outside forces can impose a host of limits, a host of pains, a host of unjust acts upon you, upon your life, but the life that thrums in the blood, in the synapses of thought, in the deep well of your soul cannot be touched, cannot be made a slave, cannot be harmed except by your willingness to harm and enslave it.

Truly. Truly. Truly.

This, of course, pre-supposes a soul, and if that is outside your ken then you are so deeply fucked you can wear your ass as a hat.

* * *

It had been a torrent, but it's fury could not be sustained, and the sky settled into a gentle, soaking rain that would turn the ground soft, as if you could feel yourself sinking into it like a stuck wheel. I had been on the road for the better part of 10-12 hours making my way to Louisville. First in my father's car, then on a bus, and now in a cab. I was running away from the collapse of my marriage, but the root cause was running right along with me.

The cabbie was taking me to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane where I hoped to restore myself and so be able to restore my marriage. I had no plans other than arriving.

At the time there was a long, pea-gravel drive leading up to a 19th century gatehouse that served as the entrance to the monastery. As we crunched our way slowly up the drive in a grey mid-morning light, the cabbie asked if I wanted to turn around. He'd give me a lift back to Louisville no charge. I thanked him and said, no. I'd come this far, I'd go a bit further. I got out of the cab and got my money out. He asked again if I wanted to go back with him. I again said no. When my hand was on the door to the gatehouse he asked a third time. I just smiled and shook my head. And then he said, "Your choice," and drove off.

When I entered the gatehouse there was no room at the inn for me. I could not stay. People booked rooms there months in advance. I had to leave and my ride just left. The next ride out would be hours away. I had chosen and this was my reward. Except, it truly was my reward. For the first time I had decided to go forward instead of back. The fact it appeared not to work made no difference.

Of course, acts such as that are rewarded in ways you could never imagine and a miracle or two unfolded and I stayed at the Abbey for four days and was given my first lessons in unfucking my life. Lessons I draw on almost 25 years later.

* * *

If you want to unfuck your life, lean into it. Decide. Choose. Act. Stasis is no way to live. In fact it is a type of death because of all the life you are passing up. The force that drives the green fuse is the force of life in you, what Aurelius called logos, what I'll call soul, what can be called spirit, but by any name the fact you live means there is an animating force pulsing through you. Join it. Learn its unique expression and pulse and thrum along with it. Do that and you are unfucked no matter what happens outside. The fact that you will die one day does not relieve you of the requirement to live until then.

* * *

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

In These Bodies

The Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague
In these bodies we will live.
In these bodies we will die, and
Where you invest you love
You invest your life.

- Mumford & Sons, "Awake My Soul"

* * *

The world is pocked with sacred sites, places where believers believe, where memory is not the past, but the present. These places usually have a connection to death. Sometimes on a grand scale (Gettysburg, Auschwitz, all of Cambodia), sometimes on a more personal scale (Yeats' gravesite, the Taj Mahal, etc). These places become sacred to the living because we are spooked by the death they echo. These are places of no answers, only longing.

One of these places is the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. It is sacred on many, many levels. For believers it is the ground that took in the bones of Rabbi Loew, the creator of the Golem. For the rest of humanity it is a staggering testament to the fact that prior to WWII over 600,000 Jews called Prague home, and after the war, well, you know that answer.

There are still more intimate places of the sacred that are known only to the one who understands those places to be sacred. For me the list would included the spot alongside a tiny creek in SW Michigan where I scattered my father's ashes, a restaurant where the meal was useless, but the company the best I have known, the corner of Ridge and Noyes in Evanston, the "L" platform at Wilson, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, 2716 W. 84th Pl, and on and on until the list is so long, so complete that I have included every bit of ground I have touched since I first touched the ground.

I have said elesewhere here, that to unfuck your life you have to give thanks for all of your life - the painful, shitty parts as well as the days and nights your life slid in greased grooves, and it is so. It is so. But because you are fucked, you won't be able to believe it. And that sucks for you.

But riddle me this, since you know your time is finite why are you wasting it in useless suffering, in fearful dithering, and for no reason other than your pride is wounded by the inherent unfairness of knowing your time is finite?

* * *

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

- T. Roethke, "I Knew A Woman"

* * *

My fucked friends, you should do more fucking. The world is not a playground with set rules, but rather an empty canvas wherein you create the rules. The sacred soaks from every pore and covers each whether we notice it or not, whether we believe it or not. It is simply the nature of nature to be so. You fuck yourself when you try to tame, conquer or suss out the infinite. You are here to make a stand, to make investments in the prosaic nature of the infinite. You are here to love the fact you are here.

Each place is sacred. Each person you encounter the same, and of course, so too the one you see in the mirror. Quit acting like this is a big deal. Get in there and enjoy yourself. See what you can make of it with the time you have left. If you let yourself enter the stream, there will never be enough time anyway, but that's not the point. Is it?

Jump in. The water's fine.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Once You Have

"Once you have deliberated and determined that a course of action is wise, never discredit your judgment. Stand squarely behind your decision. Chances are there may indeed be people who misunderstand your intentions and who may even condemn you. But if, according to your best judgment, you are acting rightly, you have nothing to fear. Take a stand. Don't be cravenly noncommittal."

- Epictetus,  The Art of Living

* * *

Mana lapho - Swahili for "Stand Your Ground"

* * *

It seems to me the whole of experience, of wisdom is to stand your ground. Decisions must be made. This chosen over that. Losses accepted in service of other goals. It seems to me the whole of fuckedness to give ground, to vacillate, to refuse one's name, one's utterly unique expression in the world. And to cede that ground for no other reason than you couldn't work up the spit to be heard.

Ah, fuck.

The ways in which justify our "cravenly noncommittal" way of wasting our time, our days, our lives, our fucking gifts reeks of decay, cowardice and false humility. It is the only true sin available to us: refusing Life's call. None of us are bound to succeed. Most of what we do will fall short, but we are obligated to try.

The fucked are perfectionists, and the great thing about perfectionists is they NEVER do anything. They know their efforts will not match their imaginations, their expectations and so don't venture the game because, well, if it is going to be just so, then...

* * *

Many years ago I dreamed the answer to my unique presence in the world. I dreamed it only once and have never forgotten it. I was dressed in a double breasted white linen suit - the one I was married in back in 1986 - and I am standing along side a vast canyon. The sun is setting and the canyon walls glow orange and red before falling off into darkness below the rim of the canyon. I am smoking. I look great.

Out of the silence comes the bustling clatter of a pick up truck backing up to the edge of the canyon, the red brake lights puncturing the falling darkness like burning coals. I step away from the canyon to see the clod who has interrupted my silent, smoking, well-groomed reverie. The driver gets out of the truck dressed in filthy jeans, a soiled t-shirt, battered work boots and a look of derision on his face when he looks at me. It takes me a moment, but I realize the driver is me.

The filthy me says nothing but walks to the rear of the truck which is over-laden with junk: busted bicycles, appliances, broken dolls, boxes, tins, rusted barbed wire, spine-busted books, newspapers - all of the trash you can imagine. The filthy, working me hops in the back of the truck and starts heaving the junk over the edge of the canyon. I can hear it skitter down the walls and come to rest far below. The working me just keeps at it and the truck never seems to empty. The white-suited me looks over the edge of canyon and can just make out a small pile of shit at the bottom. It dawns on the groomed, clean me that the fool in the truck is trying to fill the canyon. It is at least a mile wide and God knows how deep. It is futile. The clean me shakes my head at the uselessness of it.

The working me pities the fool in the white suit and just gets back to work.

* * *

Our live are not measured by "success," or any external yardstick. Die with millions in the bank, or die with none you are still dead. No. Our lives are measured by the effort we give to the living of them. This is entirely an internal process that no one will ever know about except by its effects.

I loved that suit. I loved the woman I married the day I wore it. I loved being the guy who looked good in that suit and cigarette. I loved my faux-cynicism, my delusional wisdom at what was possible and what was not. But that ain't me. Not in this life. Just because the canyon can't be filled doesn't relieve me of my obligation to try and fill it, to live out the particulars of my life.

Nor does it relieve you, my fucked friends, of your obligation to do your work, to stand your ground.

Mana lapho, motherfucker. Mana lapho.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hey Ahab Hoist

Hey Ahab hoist that sail
You gotta stand up straight
When you ride that whale.

Elton John & Leon Russell, "Hey Ahab"

* * *

Aurelius predates Mr. John and Mr. Melville when he writes, "Straight. Not straightened." The idea being that if one is in command of one's thoughts, one's life, then Life will not need to straighten you out, to knock that silly grin off your face.

But we're fucked, us fuckers, aren't we? We are the crooked man who walked a crooked mile, who found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile. Like the crooked man in the Mother Goose rhyme, we compound our crookedness, our fuckedness, with every step we take. Why? Because we refuse the tonic of standing up straight, of facing our fears, of embracing the obstacle. Ahab's fight wasn't with the whale. It was with his missing leg. It is easy to sail to your doom and drag others down with you. Easy to remain bent by the blows you take in Life. Harder to stand up straight.

Didn't think I could connect Elton John, Captain Ahab and Mother Goose, did you?

* * *

My attorney has the look and demeanor of a former football player - a down lineman - and he uses his considerable size and presence to great advantage in the court. In the beginning even I was intimidated by him. The wreck of the divorce itself was simply too petty to be believed. Dozens and dozens of motions were flown at me seeking every sort of punishment, payment, and humiliation. All failed. My guy was/is good. It was, however, a harrowing time.

One day I was sitting across from him trying to sort out the tail end of the proceedings when he said, "You certainly know how to take a punch." If I had to identify the moment I began to stand up straight, I'd pick that one.

The entire process of divorce is one of failure. You don't wind up in court because it all worked out. Mistakes were made in judgment, trust and personal responsibility. It is ripe with regret, anger and retribution. Even the most amicable ones hide a thick layer of loss. Yet this one seemed particularly fecund. I remember wondering why it had to play out the way it did, because there was no reason for it.

While it is the easier thing to do to blame the other side in all contests, I refuse to do so. It is also easy to beat one's breast and moan, "Mea culpa, mea cilpa." But I have no such belief. Rather, it was simply Life asking me if I was up to the task of living my life, if I could, to borrow Elton's line, stand up straight and ride the whale. The pummeling I took, the various depths and layers of wounded pride, outrage, shame and frustration, help beat me back into shape the way an anvil and hammer will straighten steel.

I had been a crooked man living in a crooked house, avoiding my life. Now Life came straight at me. Thank God.

* * *

There are as many way to fall off track as there are ways to get back on. Though divorce is hardly new, nor its traps and snares unknown, it is the thing I had to go through to find my way back to my life. I was fucked. Odd as it seems, the futility of the process unfucked me, got me to stand up straight and recognize that I can do nothing about the decisions and actions of others. All that I can do is take care of my own thoughts, words and deeds.

This is the open door of freedom. From here I am responsible for the shape, texture and direction of my life - not another, not anything external, just me. You must understand this one thing: there will always be outside influences and events that will limit you, impinge on your life, your ability to stand up straight - always. The key is to respond to those events and influences out of a deep sense of Self, out of a well of integrity, out of a willingness to stand up straight and ride whatever whale is demanded of you with the unshakable joy that comes when you know who you are.

Can you name your whale?

Ride, baby. Ride.