Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wasn't All This

The last poet
Wasn't all this a miracle? Be astonished, Angel, for we
are this, O Great One; proclaim that we could achieve this,
   my breath
is too short for such praise. So, after all, we have not
failed to make use of these generous spaces, these
spaces of ours.

- RM Rilke, The Seventh Duino Elegy

* * *

No work takes more of my attention than Rilke's Duino Elegies. I re-read and gain a bit more of a foothold dozens of times a year. Sometimes I move from beginning to end. Other times it is just one elegy, but always I am drawn to these works and believe, by the sheerest of silences, I can hear the beating heart of God in the cadences and rhythms of these poems.

It is true. It is true. I waste my time rereading translations of German poetry - this German poetry - when there is actual work to be done. I have long since concluded that this IS my work.

Not everyone is meant to have an MBA.

* * *

Like you, like every last one of you motherfuckers who has ever lived, I am an artist. The collection of Epictetus' aphorisms is called The Art of Living. The art we are to create is our life - this one solitary ride we take on the merry-go-round. When we fuck it up, when we live disconnected from our central selves, always absorbing the judgments and desires of others, we make such shitty art.

But art does not get made in a vacuum. It is impulse and desire matched with experience, with ability, with the willingness to fail. No art, no life is fully formed on day one. The goal, my fucked fuckers, is to have it sussed out before the lights go out. It is in the doing that we are redeemed. Not in the worrying and cowering, but in the myriad attempts we make to create something out of the time we have, out of the time we've been given.

It occurs to me that so much of our anxiety about time, about having enough or running out, or whatever negative connotation we foist upon time has it all wrong. Time is not a punishment, but rather a gift: Here, asshole, go run and play. See what you can do. Don't follow someone else's rules. This is your time, your turn.

And what do we do with this time, this turn, this gift? If you are paying attention you make use of these generous spaces, these spaces of ours.

* * *

Later in the poem Rilke shows the Angelic host he is singing to how generous Life is to us humans, shows the angel our greatness, how high our aspiration rise: 

But a tower was great, wasn't it? Oh Angel, it was-
even when placed beside you? Chartres was great -, and music
reached higher still and passed far beyond us. But even
a woman in love -, oh alone at night by her window . . .
didn't she reach your knee?

Man's greatest achievement is a woman in love. Brilliant.

Yes, yes, it is our ability to love that the angels are jealous of, and it is this desire we have to be found in another that creates all art, does all the work and soothes all our fears.

Some of us will live in garrets and others in mansions, some will use color, and others will use money, a few will use sound, a few others motion, but we all have the same challenge, the same gift in front of us - how to use it up before we lay it down; how to use this generous space - the space of your one life - and rise to the angel's knee.

Now quit your whining and get to it.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Fact That

The writer's gravesite.
The fact that our task is exactly as large as our life makes it appear infinite.

- F. Kafka

* * *

Trouble, in all its permutations, appears permanent, a stain on our days, unconquerable. But that is only because we stand on a single point in time and cannot see the true puniness of our time, our trouble. It fills our vision and we assume it fills life. This is the myopia of being human. It is also the challenge of our days to break free of it, to see not with new or better eyes, but with our own eyes that what we call trouble is the trouble of not thinking for ourselves, of not choosing - at every moment - to be free. Trouble such as this is no trouble at all since you are both the lock and key.

* * *

How many have died in the Fukushima Prefecture? The dead in Libya, are they counted yet? Does it matter? The human enterprise is littered with the cost, in bodies stacked like cord wood, of myopic thought. Lets build this nuclear reactor here, by all these people. And yes, there are some cracks in the containment chamber, but what could go wrong? As a matter of fact my people do love me, that is why I must cleanse them every now and again.

There is real trouble in the world. Fools and despots and the criminally narrow heap the mystery of their ignorance and cruelty on whom ever is at hand and lives are lost in waves. Nature, too, has her way with our scrambling over the surface of the Earth and still we build on fault lines and are shocked, just shocked when that hurricane wipes out the coast.

Here's the news: no one gets out of here alive. All the living must be done now.

If a tsunami can litter a wintry beach in Japan with tens of thousands of bodies, why are you gnashing your teeth over your inability to go ahead and live the life you imagined for yourself instead of bowing down in front of everyone else's expectations?

If murderous dictators can send their armies against their own people, why are you sitting on your thumbs afraid to express your love because it might be rejected?

Fuck that.

Your task is to live while you can. Your task is to overcome any and all external limitations placed in your way not by force of arms, but by your internal freedom. Rilke writes: "What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours - that is what you must be able to attain."

* * *

Time is always short. Silence the critic in your head. Walk inside yourself and find out what is there - at the center. I promise you, once you visit it, once you see it, once you recognize yourself as that essential, central thing, you will never bow down before the bludgeonings of chance, you will choose life over death. And should your body wash up on a shore, a casualty of forces larger than your ability to withstand, only those who knew you will grieve. You are as anonymous as those bodies in Libya and Japan; however, the infinitude of your task - to love while you can, to live while you can - will continue in those who follow in your steps.

Do not mistake fear for trouble.



Monday, March 21, 2011

Die While You're

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

- Bunan (1603-1676)

* * *

The key is to be absolutely dead. Not partially dead. Not wounded, but dead. We fucked fuckers prefer our wounds to our deaths and so linger miserably in our longing for an end to our fuckedness when a simple death would be so useful.

But it is not so simple, is it?

You've got to die to the accouterments of the half-life you are living: fear, vanity, false suffering. (The whole baby with the bath water thing.) These habits must die absolutely. It is you who must live, that essential Self buried under the weight of so much fear and longing. Do that and Bunan's words become true: you are then free to do whatever you want.

With freedom at hand, what is stopping you?

* * *

What are the obligations of your life? To feed and clothe your children? To house them? To care for parents, family, your community? To work? To earn enough money to live as you would have it be? To love your partner? To be loved? To build? Create? Fight against injustice?

There is grace in daily obligations, the million and one small gestures of a life connected to other lives. These obligations, these minor graces are the warp and woof of living. And they are all pointed outward - from you to the other (who or whatever that may be). This is what Dr. Frankl identifies as the key to happiness and freedom: living for a cause larger than yourself. But few do. I don't. I haven't. I'm trying, but I am not there. There's no jumping to the end of the line here. First things insist on being first.

Like dying while you are alive.

If I am to love another, if I am to give myself to a cause that calls me to its service, what is it that I will bring forth if I carry my fears and vanity and useless suffering forward? You know that answer, right? To love another freely, to serve the cause that frees others, you must first be free of those habits of mind and experience that limit the expression of that love, of that service.

I am a humanist, a believer in the power of the individual, of the unique and irreplaceable value of each life. I believe we best love God when we best become ourselves. Fear, vanity, and the ineptitude of suffering by our own hand are the walls that separate us from our essential selves. Without fail this must die.

Can you imagine your life without those habits? Can you imagine what it would be like to love freely, without the effluent of fear and narcissism? To act directly? To be that which thou art?

For years I could not even imagine it, but I know it exists. I believe each word brings me closer.

What are you doing?

You can do whatever you want: it's all good.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Ain't It Strange

Ain't it strange the way we're ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking value for the price
And play a game with time and Love
Like a pair of rolling dice
So beautiful, so beautiful
So what

- P. Simon, So Beautiful Or So What
* * *
When I was a kid money was worse than scarce - it was wasted. My parents' capacity to work was just shy of limitless. They struggled and fought and dreamed and worked and kicked for every bit of purchase on solvent land, but they could never marshal the assets they had to make their lives any easier or better or less fraught with worry. They borrowed deeply against dreams without plans, just somehow imagining that briefcase full of cash didn't have more than a few strings attached. Economic apocalypse was a dog scratching at our door forever and ever, world without end, amen.

It got so they could not bear to retrieve their mail - it was simply another bill they could not pay - and it accumulated in a post office box for a week or more before they'd gather it up and then never open them up. Plausible deniability, I suppose, and the woes festered, grew limbs, sat down at dinner with us, but no one could mention the beast sitting there. The tonic was work, more work and then work some more until their time was up. My father worked in a morgue up until a month before his own cancerous death. My mother works still.

And me? I work and work and have a pile of unopened bills that I cannot bear to look at for each is an accusation - Did you learn nothing?

* * * 

We drink the wine of our own blood
  aged in the barrels of our souls.

We would give our lives for a sip of that nectar,
Our heads in exchange for one drop.

- Rumi

* * *

We are fools for ignorance and it fucks us every time. The old saw tells us a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but more dangerous is our willful ignorance - the purposeful unknowing we engage in when we know, deep down in the marrow, that we've fucked it up. Knowledge is dangerous because it makes us hungry, desiring more. Ignorance is a full belly of stupid, desiring nothing - or worse, only desiring what is at hand.

Oh, lord, God, let me starve if those are my choices.

We jigger it and figure it with self-soothing lies about what is appropriate or right or moral or possible or lace it with false humility or false pride or prideful sleep or any fucking thing that causes us to think too little or too much of our worth and so settle, like so much dust, into the corners we've chosen to lay in.

Brothers, sisters, you were made for more than this.
Knock it off.

It is a false dichotomy to choose between what one desires and to desire at all. You were born for good luck in the sense that desire is built into you the same way bones grow in you - thou art that. But desire is neither good nor evil, but how we imagine it is. Rumi tells me that what I seek, what I would give my life for, is already mine. If I already possess it, what is there left to desire? The only answer I have is this: ways to USE it.

It is the central mystery of our days that we are to act in this world; we are to be verbs - not nouns - and act, create, do while we have the time to breathe. Jiggering and figuring we have more time, or enough time, or can replace the love we toss aside, or the time we waste idling with unopened bills, with work that keeps us so busy we never think to look, but always dream things will somehow get better, or easier, or more meaningful simply because we want it is a coward's death. Wishing is not doing, neither is busy work. The true doing is drinking the wine of our own blood, our own time, our own works, our own acts.

So beautiful or so what.


Monday, March 14, 2011

As You Proceed

As you proceed through life,
following your own path, 
birds will shit on you.
Don't bother to brush it off.

- Joseph Campbell

* * *

I'd go Joe one better: if you are not getting shit on you are not on your path. The shit is proof you've unfucked yourself.

* * *

Human society is like a kid coming home after school and eating a bag of Cheetos: lazy and indifferent to the actual costs of its poor decisions. Society thrives on conformity - the Cheetos of human interaction - and despises anything that doesn't fit into the well-worn niches of work, ambition, acquisition and consumption. The size of your house matters more than your capacity to act with compassion. If you're not on the gravy train you are "the biggest fucking loser" imaginable. Here are the goods and the goods are what's good and if you don't have the goods, then you are no good.

Got it? Good.

But the goods alone are never good enough. They make life easier or more pleasurable or more beautiful, but they never fill the hole in your soul.

You've got to be on your own path for any of those things to be any good. If you aren't living the life that is yours alone to live then you are fucked. If you are living out the consequences of being solely yourself, then you are going to be shit on, misunderstood, even despised for not bending to what others expect out of you.

Better to fuck them, then fuck yourself.

And here's why: as much as society (large and small) craves conformity and continuity and control, it only advances by the work and lives of crackpots, fools and outcasts who insist on creating something new out of the materials at hand. Campbell describes the hero's journey as incomplete unless he returns to the wasteland - the place of conformity and timidity and fear - and delivers some measure of what he learned on his path for others to use. And here's the kicker: the fucked never want what is given. The only action available to the hero is to sacrifice and give away his impossibly earned knowledge. He can have no influence over whether anyone finds value in it.

For him the value was in the doing and that is all. That is all.

* * *

Lately I have felt a gathering storm. My reading has pulled together disparate threads and suggested other readings which have reinforced and propelled some new projects, new avenues of expression. But it has not broken loose yet. It builds and I am alert to its changes so that I don't miss what is surely coming my way, what I am surely rushing towards.

And what are those books, those readings but the attempts others have made to try and bring back to the wasteland their hard won knowledge, their insight gained at what appears to be a life lived out of bounds? The world resounds with their sacrifice. Somewhere, in a library, at a yard sale, by the side of the road, in an open field, or locked in vault is the example and encouragement you need to answer the call of your life. Living fucked and stuck in the wasteland of other's expectations is a lousy way to spend a life. You were made for more. Get off your ass and find it. Even at the cost of your safety, security and sanity - find it.

What appears to be safe and secure is the illusion of conformity. Act out of compassion, act out of your true self and you are the mirror of the God who made you. Act out of fear, out of compliance, out of a desire to be rid of the responsibility of your inherent freedom and you are dead where you stand.

What's a little shit on your shoulder compared to that?


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I'm Gonna Be

I'm gonna be iron
Like a lion
In Zion

- Bob Marley, "Iron, Lion, Zion"

* * *

A few years ago Monster.com ran a bitingly hysterical ad (here) that featured a bunch of kids saying when they grew up they wanted to be yes men and have a brown nose and claw their way to middle management. It's funny because it rings true and and it throws the question - "What did you want to be?" - right back in your face. The comparison between what we imagined for ourselves and what we've become was all too painful. So we laugh.

I had no dreams of being what I've become. I fell to it. I've had some spikes of accomplishment, but taken as a whole, this is not what I thought I'd be.

So, I'm taking Bob's advice. I'm gonna be iron, like a lion in Zion.

Why not go for it?

* * *

Somewhere buried deep in the Upanishads is the refrain Tat Tvam Asi which translates as "Thou art that." It means your true Self is identical with the ultimate reality - you are that - and it is this knowledge that liberates you. If thou art fucked it is because you've lost track of your true Self somewhere along the way. You traded who you are for what you could become. And what you've become is fucked.

But this doesn't have to be a permanent state because no matter how far you fall from your true Self, that original spark of magma still exists whether you care to believe it or not. Unfucking yourself is a matter of finding it again and once found living by it come hell or high water.

You can do a world of damage to yourself and to others by not reconciling that which is solely yours with your actions. You are always free to choose. It is the one great freedom afforded to us all - we can choose - and abdicating your responsibility here, letting others dictate terms, letting cultural currents and profit motives dictate the contours of your life is rat-bastard cowardly. You were born to choose, not go along to get along.

* * *

I have worked as a porter, door to door salesman, ladies shoe department salesman, funeral home attendant, short-order cook, telemarketer, retail clerk, waiter, bartender, restaurant manager, production assistant, assistant director, art department coordinator, teacher, corporate consultant, writer, stay-at-home-dad, retail manager, wine buyer and maybe another ten or so I've forgotten. I've been fucked that's for sure because the only one I was any good at, the only one I felt at home in was when I was teaching. It was always a challenge and there was always something new to learn. It felt just like being alive.

Some people are blessed with the sure knowledge of what work they will fill their life with and then live it. Others struggle to find their footing, but once found they then live it. Us fucked fuckers keep trying to get up that hill and it goes oh so nowhere. We are at a far remove from thou being that, but here's the news: you are free to choose whatever it is you are.

No life is a straight line from cradle to grave. We meander, circle back, take the wrong exits and generally slalom our way through time. Desire is impulse and experience shapes those desires. At any moment you are free to wake up, free to choose differently, free to be thou being that. Freedom is not an external state, or a circumstance one finds one's self in. It is internal and eternal. Your only job is to recognize it and then act in accordance with it.

* * *

Iron, lion, Zion, mother fucker.

Iron. Lion. Zion


Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Fool Is

The fool is idle.
He eats and rolls in his sleep
Like a hog in a sty.
And he has to live life over again.

- Dhammapada, "The Elephant"

* * *

Trying to see something at night requires a million sidelong glances in order to see what is in front of you. Rods and cones and all that. There's a hole in your vision that requires you to look away and so find what you wanted to see.

So too my understanding with Buddhism. I need to look away all the time.

* * *

The fucked life is one in stasis - in thought, in action, in perpetuity. It mistakes the fundamental processes of eating, sleeping, fucking, breathing and dying with living. Our animal capacities are baseline operations - and each is a potential source of pleasure, gratification and inquiry. But they are potential only. The missing link is a mind awake to itself, to its time and that uses that time, uses its potential to become fully human - the communion of animal and spirit.

Idleness as the devil's workshop is a tired saw. It imagines nefarious imps tearing at your soul and in truth that ain't a bad way to look at it.

Were you born merely to eat and fuck? Were you born simply to die? No, the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are and most of our time is spent shedding the thick skin of our fears in order to meet our lives directly. Except when we don't. Except when we roll in our sleep and believe the extent of our capacity is the wall we've built around ourselves - the cocoon of our fears. We seal off the mystery of consciousness and attend to its first steps only: eating, sleeping fucking, breathing and dying.

* * *

I have always hated the implied hatred Buddhism holds for this life. The ever winding spiral of lives we have to live in order to be set free of life, the endless renunciation of eating, sleeping, fucking and breathing that is part and parcel of wanting to be rid of our skins. Dude, I was born here and this is the one life I know I've got and there's way too much that is beautiful and fine, that gives pleasure and meaning to my finite days. Fuck you, fat man. I like it here. Now pass the fried chicken and slaw and get me a beer.

But that ain't right, is it? Look at the passage at the top of the page. Instead of reading it as a punishment - that the idle fool who sleeps through his life has to come back in another life and try again, read it as a warning: you only have this life and only so much time and the longer you wait to wake up and be fully human - animal and spirit - the less time you have to truly live and the more likely that you will repeat the same mistakes over and over and over. You will constantly be re-living your dolor, living the SAME life over and over again.

A hundred years ago, a beautiful woman asked this question of me: "What if reincarnation happened in this life only? What if all our lives were held in this one life?"

How many time have you died and been born again? Died to what you thought you knew and entered a new world of understanding and meaning?

I have been a pig in my sty rolling in my fuckedness imagining, like the captives in Plato's cave, that what I saw before me was all there was. I could have died there and believed only my fears, my limits. Many do. Many do. Perhaps they died happy. Maybe not. The take away is they die all the same. Since no one gets out of here alive, why not live like you meant it until then?

Do not be idle with fear.
Do not roll in your sleep and be content with a full belly.
Live, goddammit. Live.

* * *

Pigs are for eating.