Saturday, February 26, 2011

Tis Shameful To

"'Tis shameful to take on a load that is too great
Then leave it when our knees buckle beneath its weight."

- Propertius

* * *

I am a fool for aphorisms and epigraphs. A fool. A right fool. They embody a kernel of the larger idea to come and carry with them the full weight of certainty, of obviousness, the pithy declamation of a wiser soul than me am. They guide me into what I want to say and control how far I'll go.

This one rhymes, too, and that can only be a plus.

* * *

Atlas is burdened with holding up the sky after placing a wrong bet on the outcome of the war between the Titans and Olympians. He is personified by the quality of not merely strength, but endurance. There is an appeal in this metaphor which guides the fucked on their merry way to their fuckedness: the pride of withstanding unjust punishment.

To be fucked is to not know shit from shinola, is to confuse one's circumstance with one's fate, is to mistake the necessary with the applied and so become a shot berry, a half-formed person. Pride in one's suffering is a sign of mental illness, not enduring strength. There are are true martyrs in the world, but they are rare and their sacrfices are for causes larger than themselves. Suffering (ig)nobly because you don't have a handle on your abilities, your name is not martyrdom. It is a waste.

One of the best markers of the fucked, like the Mark of Cain, is the willingness to bear it all, to over bear, to take on a load greater than the capacity to achieve it. Doing so guarantees failure, but such a well-intention failure it is. And it is, after all, in failing that the fucked find their rest.

* * *

The last few years have found me scrabbling for work. I have run from pillar to post taking on doomed and ill-paying projects because they held out the promise of a bit of work NOW. And while I know I did some good for those I worked for I also know I worked far below my ability because I had too many plates spinning and the crashing was just part of the cost of running from pillar to post.

But it never feels too good and each project that limps over the line is a voice in the chorus whispering: "You're fucked. You're fucked. You're fucked."

There is nothing noble in being fucked. Grace and nobility arrive when you stop.

But what is it in us that calls us to burdens that are not our own, that we willingly take on knowing there is no way in hell we can succeed? Like in most things that are fucked fear is the root that feeds our vanity.

Whether it is fear of being found out to have no idea what we're doing, or fear of not knowing what to do, or fear of being left out, or whatever fear floats your boat, it is fear that fucks you. For me it was fear of money, of not having it, of my lack being used against me as a judgment of my ability to parent, to love my children. I took on work that a blind man could see was going nowhere and I walked that knife-edge of dissolution and the next thing with a fury and panic that kept me fucked and stuck and only finding more of the same.

We fucked fuckers are the prophets of self-fulfilling prophecies.

But baby needs new shoes, right? We all gotta work. The challenge is to find YOUR work - not the scraps that get heaved your way. Your work and no other. But keep this in mind - I'm not talking about what job you have. I'm talking about your work.

* * *

Eventually Herakles journeys to the western edge of Gaia to where Atlas is holding up the skies. There are two stories that branch out of that meeting. 1) Herakles holds the sky up for a while Atlas gathers some apples and tricks the old Titan into bearing the load again, and 2) Herakles builds two pillars to hold the skies and so relieves Atlas of his burden.

I'm going to go with the second version.

You don't have to go it alone, and there's got to be another way.

Did you know Atlas was also the god of astronomy guiding sailors on their way and helping farmers know the seasons? He is stuck in our imagination as a stoic bearer of a weight beyond all comprehension, but in truth he is the root of discovery, civilization, of human society.

Set your false burden down and find out what you can do instead.

* * *

And I have nothing to do with Ayn Rand.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

I Was Once

Remnant of a statue of Aurelius
"I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions."

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5:37

* * *

It is impossible for me not to love Aurelius. Impossible. In these three brief sentences he sketches in the arc of his days, the arc of mine and all who have passed through the fires of their lives.

* * *

Each life begins somewhere and moves out into the world from that one fixed point in time. What we think, what we do, what we decide is based on where we begin, who and what we encounter and the process of assimilating and weighing the evidence before us provides us with our first sense of what is good, of what our lives are for, of what is possible.

I was once a fortunate man...

I can stretch my mind back to my first strengths, to the certainty of absolutes, to the untested certainties I carried around like so many rocks ready to be flung through windows: I knew I was smart and that knowledge made me believe in my own good fortune. I was born into the vast middle, but I was different (or so I believed) and that was my good fortune. I was smart, unforgiving, arrogant without cause - as are all who are arrogant - and I was without direction. No cause moved me to action. Righteousness was its own reward.

... but at some point fortune abandoned me.

I married a brilliant woman at 25. Such was her brilliance she divorced me within a year saying, "Do you have any idea how awful it is to be with someone who is always right?" Not right, self-righteous. I was, in the words of a dear friend, "knocked off my pins." The testing had begun.

It is a given that life will question you, that the certainty with which you step foot out the door will be called into question by events outside of your control. No one gets a free ride. All must answer the questions their lives bring forth. It is no use comparing the questions and circumstances of one life to another. Some one will always have it worse that you. Some one will always seem to have it easier, but so what? You can only concern yourself with the questions (and answers) of your life.

All I had believed was in a shambles. Certainty had evaporated and with it my sense of self - the sense of self that had arrived from the vacuum of my modestly privileged youth, the vacuum that is present at the start of each life, the vacuum waiting to be filled by experience.

But true good fortune is what you make for yourself.

I clung to my arrogance in new ways - as victim, as survivor, as misunderstood. And one by one life questioned the usefulness of each. I was a dull student and years moved by and I still slogged it out, assuming new roles, trying out new ways of being, always looking for the answers in what others had wrought out of their lives: husband, father, writer, student, worker. Always I allowed myself to be under-employed because I looked at how others managed their roles and instead of forging my own I wore the uniforms that were handed to me. I hadn't learned a thing. And then I lost it all again. I hadn't learned and so had to re-take the test and the cost this time was catastrophic.

It was only then, with my life scrubbed of all pretense, that I began to understand good fortune as something that is entirely internal and has no basis in the various fortunes that arrive from outside one's self. I was once fucked, but now I was free.

It is up to you, and you alone, to make your life into the shape you would have it be. Again, don't look at what you have, but who you are. That is the lock and key to unfucking your life.

Good fortune: good character, good intentions, good actions.

The greatest fortune is to be who you are and who you are is a dialog between your thoughts and deeds - this is your character. The most fortunate man on earth is the one who knows who he is and lives that knowledge in such a way that it emboldens others to do the same. Heidegger wrote of authenticity and inauthenticity. It may be better understood as owning one's life. The task each of has, whether we ever recognize it or not, is to own our lives and to act in accordance with our knowledge, character and intention.

How we do that is the single greatest joy available to us, by needs be it will be utterly unique for each of us. That is our gift. That is our challenge. That is our privilege.

Stop comparing yourself to others.
Don't copy off your neighbor.
Do your own work.
This is a timed test.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

And Distant Ocean-Engines

The Poet
And distant ocean-engines pulverize
Their underwater mountains, coarse to fine,
And water waves appear and disappear
Retrieving counted grains and leaving more
Uncounted grains in heaps in lullabies,
Where Archimedes, counting grains of sand,
Is seated in his half-filled universe,
And sorting out the grains by shape and size,
And all is well now, hush now, close your eyes,
And one... by one... by one... by one... by one...
The flakes of mica gold and granite-crumbs
Materialize, and dematerialize.

- G. Schnackenberg, "Archimedes Lullaby"

* * *

My father was an embalmer. At the time of his death I calculated that somewhere near 12,000 bodies had passed under his hands during his 40 year stint in the various tiny morgues of the various tiny funeral homes dotting the south side of Chicago that were more his home than the place where I grew up. He'd be called out in the middle of the night to work on two, three, four bodies that managed to time their deaths to stack up like so many airplanes waiting to land. And he would go in the darkness to do an ugly, dark job that no one wanted to consider, but were so glad to have done on their behalf.

And I was among those grateful for his work. It fed me, housed me, clothed me and kept him a mystery until the months before he made his lonely way to his cancerous death.

On a handful of occasions I rode with my father to help him in his work - not the embalming, but the placing of a large and ungainly body into its casket and setting that now filled box on its catafalque. Never once did I consider the life that had so recently animated the heavy, cold, stiff body that I hoisted into place. Never once did I ask a name. Never did I think of the bogey-man or ghosts. I heaved frozen clay and that is all. That is all.

I never asked those questions because my father had taught me by his example to not ask. If he'd ever asked he couldn't have done his job and without his job we could not be a family. A child both of divorce and the Depression he was determined to have have both a job and a family - regardless of costs. This was his everyday heroism. This is the heroism of all who work for their families, of all who place themselves behind their loved ones.

Though I never asked, I always wanted to know who died - where they came from, how they lived, who they were before they were frozen, unknowing clay.

It is impossible to know. There are too many of us, too many stories, too much time, and it all ends the same, and one... by one... by one... by one... by one we flake into carbon dust and another takes our place until they, too, are pulverized by time and dematerialize.

And all this is incredibly depressing. Except there is a caveat, a loophole in the contract we have with time: if you live while you can, if you accept the finite nature of your time and USE IT UP, then you will not fear the foregone conclusion. The challenge lies in unfucking your life so that you can move while you can, build while you can, love while you can. The 12,000 bodies my dad filled with embalming fluid to slow the corrosion of their flesh so that family and friends could say good-bye without the stench and mess of decay, had their moment to live. My father's work was the icing on their cake.

Each of the 12,000 was loved or not loved as was their due. Each of the 12,000 lied or never lied as was their bent, and each of 12,000 had a chance at life. How many actually lived is anyone's guess. All those lives are heaped in lullabies whose song comes and goes.

We are born once and live once. Those we love will die in their time and time always wins. Knowing this how can you not live out the fullness of your name? Simply because you will die is no excuse not to live and if you know this you are obligated under the same contract with time to help make the lives of those closest to you kinder, braver and more forgiving than they would have been without your example.

Have you done this?

* * *

Among the few papers my father left behind are hand written notes of the cases he worked on. From October of 1992, just eight weeks before his own death, sick with chemo, my father went about his work. These are just a few of the names rescued from the lullaby pile.

October 1 - 5: Sick
October 6: Feeling better. Lost five calls.
October 7: Layout Priest for Marquette - no charge?
October 8: Sandeman - female, autopsy
October 10: Sandeman - Ryan
October 11: Zefran - female
                    (Feel Good!!)
October 12: Marquette - Zemaitis, autopsy
                    (Nice day. Shoot.)
October 14: Trip to Henry
October 17: Indian Summer!
October 19: Satala - male
                    Marquette - Skelly, female
                    Marquette - Vilulas, autopsy
                    (Sweetest Day!)
Octoner 21: KEMO
October 24: Marquette - Mickus - ship-in
                    (Rain. Trip North for lunch with Mark)
October 25: Sandeman - Temple, female
October 26: Zefran - Butkus, female
October 27: Zefran - Szlosek, female
                   Satala - Brogan, female
October 28: Marquette - Healy, male
October 29: Sandeman - Hadisohn, female
October 30: Sandeman - Pugh, female
October 31: Sandeman - Hollis, female.

* * *

On January 5, 1993, Donald Wayne Child made his way to the lullabies and the songs I sing are but the half-remembered melodies he sang in his time.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

There Is Most

"There is most joy in virtue when 'tis hardest won."

- Lucan

* * *

I am a dull knife. So little of what I can say is mine to say, but is an echoing of others' saying. But I find I am suited for it. The more I read and write the more I find trails of breadcrumbs from those who've gone before me leading me to their dull knives and their re-purposing of the works that preceded them. Their innovations and discoveries were not in developing wholly original ideas, but in building on and re-imagining the uses for what was there when they arrived on the scene.

Classicism would have been a lovely way to spend a life - steeped in Latin and Greek, a Cambridge don with tobacco flakes spilled onto trousers and hair unkempt for what need did one have of a comb when translating Ovid, etc.

I hope and pray someone still lives that way. Just as it is a wild comfort to know someone has won the lottery, so too it comforts me to know someone is living the life I always imagined I would have.

But I fucked it up and instead of a bookish life I live a life that needs to be unfucked. I would guess most of mankind does too.

You see I have known precious few people who came to their lives complete, formed in the floods and waterspouts of God ready to be their mighty self from the get go. No, precious few are the lottery winners, the Cambridge dons, the souls complete on Day 1. If you believe in reincarnation you'd have to say those folks are on their last go round. Their presumed ease a reward for presumed past torments.

No, we are wobbly monks doubting our faith, failing to live as we think we should, letting ourselves down right when we need to come through. And then we try again. If there is anything noble in a fucked life it is in the trying again. Lincoln wrote, "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have." That seems to me to be the tonic each of us needs and refuses to take until we have gone so far off the rails of our lives that its truth finally soaks into our feeble brains and we find the spine to live with what is at hand.

We many who are fucked are the geniuses of effort, even when that effort is simply to wake and face the mess we've made of things. To us alone goes Lucan's hardest won virtue. We are the creators, the mules, the sherpas, the doers of things because we have to do something to unfuck our lives. The easy talent is an over-ripe banana - its sweetness too sweet. No, we earn our way by paying for our successes with all our defeats. Our goal is not quietude, but rather a using up of our talent, our time, an insistence on being fully awake despite our sleepy incompetence. Trust me, you can sleep when you're dead. There is only now to live.

So, embrace your fuckedness. It is the raw material you get to work with to create your life. We, the fucked, have no ease and we are all the luckier for it. As hard as it is at times only we know the true sweetness of the effort made to build a life instead of simply occupying one. Yeah, it'd be nice if wasn't always so hard, but then what meaning could you wring out of your life?

There is most joy in virtue when 'tis hardest won.

Now hop to it.

PS: Don't think for a moment that any life is without its trials. That's just a literary device. Even Cambridge dons suffer.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Give Yourself Over

"Give yourself over to the life that resounds within you. Do that and you are free."

- Rev. John Beckwith, "Letter to Juliette Marsten, July 17, 1899", The Life of a Country Parson

* * *

There is grace in the certitude of faith, an elegance of being that is absent without faith in something: one's purpose, one's God, one's best beloved. We are animal brain only without the surrender to an idea or cause greater than ourselves, a letting go of our presumed primacy and instead work in concert with the stuff of our lives to create, actively, knowingly, intentionally create something utterly new: the life we are capable of living.

Each life holds within it the potential of its fullest expression. That is not to say each are alike, or that they should be, but rather that life lived completely and fully used is the privilege of our days. If you accept this idea, how can you ever be bored, or maudlin, or soaked with ennui? How can you let yourself stay fucked and stuck and going nowhere?

Give yourself over to the life that resounds with in you. Do that and you are free.

* * *

There are twenty two letters between Rev. Beckwith and Juliette Marsten that somehow made it through the fall of time. I rummage in junk stores and estate sales for old, odd books. I found Rev. Beckwith's book, probably self-published, at an estate sale years ago and let it sit unread until recently.

The Reverend Beckwith was settled into his work near Lyth Hill in Shropshire in the rural West Midlands for a few years, a newly minted Unitarian clergyman, when he began his correspondence with Mrs. Marsten. She had been a childhood friend to his family and had married about the same time he settled in Shropshire. Her husband, Daniel Marsten, died suddenly and in her despair she wrote to her old friend, assuming his position as a clergyman would provide her with answers.

Nothing was further from the truth.

In his first letter to her dated, March 16, 1897, he writes:

"My sorrow for your loss is not tempered with the unshakable knowledge of a divine plan that could some how explain or justify the tragedy that has befallen you. Such knowledge is not mine, for what plan would use men as fodder and wives as widows? Instead, I can only extend my own faith in the universal goodness of our Creator and promise you a companion in your grief."

It is difficult not to like this guy.

Later, at Christmas the same year he writes:

"Do not be idle with your despair, Juliette. You write that this year's celebration of the birth of Christ is void of any joy for you now that your beloved Daniel is gone: 'All colour and flavor are drained from the world.' But I must caution you against too much mourning. All colour and flavor still exist in the world. It is you, through the burden of your grief, who has ceased to see it, ceased to taste it. Set your burden down and restore the vibrancy that is life to your life. I shall always be here to serve you should you need me."

Slowly, apparently without  knowing it, the Rev. John George Beckwith began to woo the widow Marsten. The penultimate letter, the one quoted at the top of this page, dated July 17, 1899, was an answer to her doubts about the propriety of coming to Shropshire, for he had proposed a week earlier. She questioned where her duty to her dead husband ended and where her responsibilities for her own happiness began.

"Give yourself over to the life that resounds within you. Do that and you are free."

They married at Christmas, 1899. They had four children - three sons and a daughter. Two of the boys, twins, Malcom and Theodore, were killed in the Second Battle of the Marne, just 18 years old. The remaining son, William, went on to Cambridge and became a Latin scholar. Their daughter, Samantha, married and settled in Church Stretton in the south of Shropshire and had six children. The Reverend and Mrs. Beckwith lived to an old age. She died in 1961 and he followed her not three months later at Christmas of that year. They are buried side by side on Lyth Hill.

* * *

The last letter in their correspondence was simply this from Juliette: "I am on my way."

If your life is fucked unfuck it.

Give yourself over to the life that resounds within you.

The Reverend Beckwith was spot on.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Oh The River

Indiana John
Oh the river she knows your name
From the Brazos to the Wabash to the Seine
No two journeys are ever quite the same
But the river knows your name
Oh the river knows your name 

- J. Hiatt, The River Knows Your Name

* * *

Aurelius tells me of the logos, the life force that animates and is part of all things. This logos also animates the makings of men, guides their actions and when one acts in accord, in concert with the logos then one's life adds to that life force, makes it stronger, more apparent to those who do not act in concert with it. Part spirit, part civics, part faith Aurelius' logos became the animating spark of his life, his actions, his thought.

This idea sidles up to the truths spilled out of the bottom of Dylan Thomas' pen: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.  And like Thomas I am dumb to tell what use this force will have of me and my common bones, and yet I know such a force drives my green age and now my soon to be wintering brown.

What is this thing known but unprovable? This surity that has no basis other than consciousness, desire and self-knowledge? I don't know how it is for you, but for me I call it The River and for me the analogy extends outward to include the banks, the headwaters, the delta and eventually the sea.

* * *

It is a cruel God that you can pray to that can hear your prayers. Cruel beyond all possible telling. Cruel because the hearing of prayers does not include the answering of them, and if not answered why hear? If yours are answered why not mine? It is a cruel God to conceive of. It galls and turns penitents into slaves.

Joseph Campbell wrote that the gods who are named, who are the source material of our myths are but signs pointing beyond themselves to the God beyond the gods. If you can name it, you ain't got it. You are stuck in the realm of warring religions, of duality - good and evil, and while those myths provide great comfort/understanding/solace to their adherents, they are just one level of the story.

And they are each and all true.

The crisis occurs when one says it is truer than another, when faith becomes politics - and do not think I am referring to macro movements. No, no, no. I am referring always and always to just you and your fucked life.

When you work against yourself, when you become another's functionary, when you become, in Frankl's term, "a plaything of chance" you are fucked. The faith, the sure knowledge of yourself, that exists with or without you, that you are separated from by acting against yourself can be restored, renewed, discovered by entering the stream of your life - by choosing to be who you are in your deep heart's core rather than as others would have you be.

The fucked life is one that never enters the stream, or if it does tries to swim upstream against forces far greater than any one human life. The River, the stream, the logos is the force of all life. You are to decide the shape of your life and then live in accordance with it. It is neither good nor evil, but is. The River is the vehicle for you to use while you live to express that life. When you are gone from our company you will continue to exist in our memories for a while, but of greater import is the fact that your life will have been added to the stream, to the River making it stronger, more apparent to those who do not act in concert with it.

When you get to the Sea you are part of it all.

* * *

Life feasts on life.

And so do you.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Yes It Was

"Yes, it was all not right," he said to himself, "but never mind. I can, I can do 'right.' But what is 'right'?" he asked himself and suddenly grew still.

- L. Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

* * *

Tolstoy's question - "But what is 'right'?" - lies at the very heart of each of our lives. It is foundational, bloodroot, the deep heart's core whether we ever recognize it or not. Each life, no matter it's skill or circumstance, is imprinted with this question, part of the double helix of code that builds us up one cell at a time. We cannot shake it off like dust from our boots, but it eventually shakes us off as simply so much dust and ash.

From the start we have it ass backwards and so move through our days viewing the world as something to exploit, as something that is here for our private purposes and when the wheels come off - because living so they must come off - we are stupefied and ask: why, why, why, why, why?

It ain't why. It just is.

It is Life asking us: Why do you imagine you are so irreplaceable? Why do you sit when you need to move? What are you doing with your incredibly brief time? Who died and made you God?

* * *

The pettiness to which we sink in pursuit of our various fears isn't the worst of our habits. No, the worst of it is to act in such small, venal ways and refuse to recognize it for what it is: vanity.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

And yet, I would disagree in one vital part with the brilliant writer of Ecclesiastes:  there is one thing new under the sun - you. The Writer only sees the transitory and vainglorious aspects of our days and he misses the one unalterable fact - each of us are new. We may repeat the same mistakes, may blunder our way along a very trodden trail imagining we are discoverers, and we will pass away while the sun still whirleth about, but while we live we hold the potential of being new, of seeing the world, this life as something new, as something greater than our imaginations will allow.

All is vanity when all is directed toward yourself. Stop looking in mirrors, your hair looks fine and so what if it didn't. You breathe and while you are still able you must unfuck yourself from the pettiness of your fears and trials and engage the life that whirlth around you.

You and I will die. If there is a marker for our bones it will simply be an anonymous other in the multitude of anonymous others. Do not let this make you sad or afraid. You are hereby relieved of the burden of being anything other than your Self. Do what you can so that the lives of those closest to you (your family, your community, your cohorts in time) are made kinder, braver and more forgiving than they would have otherwise.

Your acts will fade as will your memory until a few generations from now you are but a name on some register somewhere - all the details lost, but what of it? You are not here for the history you will be making, but the turn you have at living.

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

* * *

Get going.